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Saakashvili shrugs off Mistral sale concerns on Paris visit

media Mikheil Saakashvili (L) and his wife Sandra Roelofs at the Elysée Palace Reuters

Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili played down concern over France’s proposed sale of four warships to Russia after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday. Saakashvili hailed Paris’ “unconditional” support for his country.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrives in Paris on Thursday to mark the end of a cultural “Year of Russia in France” and will have an official lunch with Sarkozy on Friday.

Saakashvili, who faces growing opposition at home, claimed that the fact that his visit precedes Putin’s is evidence that France supports Georgia “without condition and without hesitation”.

“The fact that my visit has been organised two days before Putin’s visit sends a very clear message,” the Georgian president told reporters. “This buries Russia’s efforts to isolate our country.”

But the Georgian president did admit that there are “questions” about the plans to sell four Mistral warships, capable of carrying 16 helicopters and a 750-strong landing force, to Russia, which sent troops into Georgia during a territorial dispute in 2008.

Moscow has recently raised doubts as to whether the sale will go ahead. But Russian navy chief Vladimir Vyssotski last year declared that the Georgia conflict could have been resolved in “40 minutes and not 26 hours” if his forces had had the ships at the time.

Sarkozy negotiated a ceasefire in that war and is now supporting Georgia’s efforts to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the European Union, which Saakashvili hopes will be an alternative to Russia’s economic and political influence over his country.

Sarkozy on Tuesday called for negotiations on the agreement to open this summer.

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