Thailand to buy six Swedish Gripen fighters

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BANGKOK, Oct 17 (Reuters) Thailand's Air Force will buy six JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets from Sweden's Saab for 19.5 billion baht (574 million dollars) to replace ageing F-5E fighters, Air Force chief Chalit Pukphasuk said yesterday.

A member of the selection panel had said on Tuesday the AirForce would buy 12 Gripens in two batches, but Chalit told a news conference approval of the second batch would have to wait until a new government took office after a December general election.

The first six would be bought between 2008 and 2012 and the second batch ''as soon as possible'', Chalit said.

''We still prefer to have Gripen for the rest of the fleet, but it is up to the next government and the economic conditions then,'' he said.

The Air Force said in a statement 15.4 billion baht was set aside for the second phase of the purchase between 2013 and 2017.

The news pushed SAAB share price up 3.15 percent by 1444hrs IST.

The choice of a replacement fighter had been under discussion since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a bloodless coup last year, came to power in 2001.

The selection panel member said the Air Force wanted the F-16 CD, but the United States was not allowed to sell weapons to countries whose governments have been ousted in coups.

But Chalit said today Gripens were chosen over other candidates because they had the most modern technology and the firm promised to transfer technology to Thailand while the F-16 would have to be upgraded soon.

As part of the package, two Swedish radar surveillance planes were given to Thailand for free, Chalit said.

Thaksin once pushed for Sweden or Russia to buy unwanted frozen chicken from Thailand, then hit by bird flu, in return for fighters, but the barter trade idea fell through.

Other reported candidates were Russia's Sukhoi Su-30 and MiG-29 and France's Rafael, but Chalit told Reuters in July that Thailand would not buy MiG-29s because they were already in service in neighbouring Myanmar and Malaysia.

Since the coup, Thailand's army-appointed government has approved a 66 percent increase in military spending, sparking criticism of the generals who launched the country's 18th putsch in 75 years of on-off democracy.

Last month, the post-coup interim cabinet approved the 6.7 billion baht (211 million dollars) purchase of Israeli guns, Ukrainian armoured vehicles and Chinese missiles.

Reuters PD GC1544

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