Turkey Invites Bell to Helicopter Talks

ANKARA–July 21 (Reuters) – Turkey on Friday put a US firm at the top of its list for a tender for 145 strike helicopters and said it would buy 26 large military transport planes being developed in the European Union.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit put Bell Textron ahead of a grouping of Russia’s Kamov-A and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) in a list of the two companies he invited to enter talks for a tender to buy the helicopters.

The deal is worth an estimated $4.5 billion and the first helicopter is planned for production in the second half of 2003.

"Bell is at number one on the list–but this is not a final decision and the ranking can change," Ecevit told reporters after a meeting of defense officials.

A final decision had been expected on Friday. It has been delayed twice in the past.

A third bidding firm–Italy’s Agusta–could be approached if talks with the first two groups proved unsuccessful–Ecevit said.

Ankara says the powerful aircraft–equipped with anti-tank rockets and rapid-firing heavy machine guns–are necessary to face potentially hostile neighbors in one of the world’s most unstable regions.

Bell is offering its King Kobra AH-1Z–a model similar to one already used by the Turkish armed forces.

Ecevit also said Turkey was ready to participate in a aviation project backed by firms from several EU member countries for a large military transport plane.

Turkey itself is a candidate to join the 15-member EU bloc.

Ecevit said Turkey was prepared to buy 26 of the planned aircraft–once know as the Future Large Aircraft but now called the A400M and being developed by Airbus Military Company.

"Turkey foresees a participation in that project of 26 planes–depending on its industrial needs," Ecevit said.

He said a concrete commitment on the deal would be made by Turkish Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu on July 27 at an international air show to be held in Britain.

The helicopter deal coincides with the planned purchase of up to 1,000 main battle tanks to replace Turkey’s aging inventory by 2013.

The Turkish armed forces already have nine Super Cobras helicopters and generals say they are happy with their performance even though one was shot down by Kurds in northern Iraq in 1997.

The armed forces have tried to buy 10 more Super Cobras–but canceled the order in 1995 after the US Congress threatened to block the sale over human rights concerns.

And that could be the major sticking point for Bell this time round as well. The US administration cannot guarantee Turkey will not face another embarrassing snub since it cannot put the matter before Congress until the contract is signed.

Countering the claims of rights abuses in Turkey’s 15-year conflict with Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members–US officials say strike helicopters have little to do with torture in custody and limits on freedom of expression.

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