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Serbia discusses price of French Rafale jets, in shift from ally Russia

By Aleksandar Vasovic and Ivana Sekularac

BELGRADE, June 9 (Reuters) - Serbia is still seeking to buy Rafale fighter jets from France's Dassault but is discussing the price and related weapons systems, the president said on Friday, in a further sign of Belgrade's shift away from its longtime arms supplier Russia.

"Financing is an issue," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Reuters in an interview, adding talks continued about which missiles to use and the price tag for the plane deal, which he last year put at around 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion).

Serbia, a candidate to join the European Union that has one of the largest militaries in the Balkans, still relies on Soviet-designed aircraft, such as MiG-29 jets and MI-35m helicopter gunships, alongside Russian missiles and tanks.

Vucic said purchasing Rafale jets "would make Serbia a different country and a much bigger force."

In addition to Soviet and Russian air defences, Serbia has Chinese combat drones and mid-range surface-to-air missiles.

In a deal with the United Arab Emirates in February, it ordered loitering munitions, a type of drone that flies to a target and detonates. It also has Airbus helicopters and transport planes.

Serbia is a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace, a programme for states which do not aspire to join the alliance.

Vucic said Serbia had raised the combat readiness of its troops after violence flared in May in north Kosovo, a region of its neighbour that is dominated by Serbs who remain loyal to Belgrade. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's independence.

He said talks with France included discussions about missiles for the Rafale, although he said Paris would be reluctant to sell its Meteor air-to-air missile that is produced by the MBDA multinational to a non-NATO member.

Vucic said "the question is whether you'll have the second-best", adding that having weapon systems from multiple manufacturers and countries made Serbia's rearmament more complicated.

Belgrade curtailed military co-operation with Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine and has condemned the invasion, but unlike the EU and others it has not imposed sanctions on Moscow.

Separately, he said Belgrade planned to finalise a deal to buy 118 U.S.-made HMMWV military utility vehicles, known as Humvees, and import most of them by September.

The president has previously said Serbia wanted to invest an additional 700 million euros in its military and defence industry in 2023.

($1 = 0.9295 euros)

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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