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Chile still planning to buy US F-16s - minister
Chile's defense minister said on Thursday his country intended to complete a contract to buy U.S F-16 fighter jets by early next year, a package which the Pentagon said would not include sophisticated missiles.
"We are now at a very, very early stage. In fact, it's a very political stage," Defense Minister Mario Fernandez told reporters of the proposed $600 million sale of 10 jets during a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"We believe that the contract is something that we will have under way by the end of the year or early next year," Fernandez added of talks between Chile and Lockheed Martin Corp.. "All the technical details will be coming up later when we negotiate the contract."
Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman declined to discuss details of the plan except to tell reporters that the United States would not transfer "AMRAAM" advanced, medium-range, air-to-air missiles to Latin America unless they were first introduced there by another country.
Fernandez told reporters that Chile had never formally asked for such missiles despite published reports that the Chilean military wanted the weapons.
A group of Democratic US senators this week withdrew their opposition to the proposed jet sale when the administration made clear it did not plan to introduce advanced missiles into Latin America as part of the package.
VERY ADVANCED WARPLANES
The F-16, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., is one of the world's most advanced warplanes and is capable of launching the radar-guided AMRAAM against other aircraft. The accurate "fire-and-forget" missile can be launched by pilots long before enemy warplanes are in visual range.
There was no immediate indication whether the jets might be equipped with advanced electronic targeting and navigation pods or extended-range fuel tanks and the ability for air-to-air refueling.
The jets would give Chile one of the most advanced military air arms in the region, but US defense officials pointed out Chile and its neighbors, notably Argentina, have vastly improved bilateral and regional ties in recent years.
The US government cut off the sale of sophisticated weapons to Latin America more than 20 years ago, but President Bill Clinton lifted that ban when Chile sought to buy the F-16s.
The Clinton White House said that such decisions would henceforth be made on a case-by-case basis based on the legitimate defensive needs of democracies in the region.
Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut this week withdrew his opposition to the proposed F-16 sale and praised the White House for its decision to continue to promote peace and stability in the Western Hemisphere by refusing to sell the AMRAAMS to Santiago.
Dodd and several other Democrats had asked President George W. Bush not to include sophisticated military technology in the fighter sale because introduction of the AMRAAM could spark an arms race in the region.
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