Egypt, France sign warships deal as PM starts Arab tour

Cairo (AFP) - Egypt signed a deal with France Saturday to buy two Mistral warships originally ordered by Russia as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls began an Arab tour.

Valls arrived in Cairo at the start of visits to three nations aimed at boosting economic ties and holding talks on regional conflicts, and met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

He told a press conference: "Egypt is a central partner for dealing with all the crises affecting the region -- Syria, the peace process between Israel and Palestine, tensions in Libya or in Yemen."

He added that France believes the world needs a "strong and stable Egypt", concluding that "we all have a common enemy -- Daesh", an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

The Mistrals contract illustrates the rapprochement Paris has had with the regime of former army chief Sisi, who ousted elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and has since cracked down on his supporters and on all opposition.

French President Francois Hollande has invoked what he called Cairo's essential role in the fight against extremism in the Middle East, particularly against IS, whose local branch has staged many deadly attacks in Egypt since 2013.

On September 23, Hollande announced he had agreed the sale of the warships with Sisi.

Valls stressed Paris's "determination" to "support President Sisi and the Egyptian government in their desire to ensure the country's stability and development, including its democratic development".

He did not publicly refer to the crackdown on the opposition, although the premier's entourage had said the question of human rights would be raised with Cairo.

France originally built the Mistrals for Russia before scrapping the sale over the Ukraine crisis.

The vessels, which can each carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft and 13 tanks, were ordered by Russia in 2011 in a 1.2-billion-euro ($1.4 billion) deal.

- Saudi financing -

However, France found itself in a difficult position in 2014 as ties between Russia and the West deteriorated over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Paris decided to cancel the delivery, an expensive decision as it had to foot a bill of more than one billion euros for the ships' upkeep and the cost of training 400 Russian sailors to crew them.

After months of intense talks, Paris and Moscow agreed on the reimbursement of the original deal in August, with Paris returning 949.7 million euros Russia had already paid.

According to French government sources, Egypt will pay 950 million euros for the warships, with "significant" financing from Saudi Arabia.

In February, Egypt became the first foreign buyer of France's Rafale fighters, in a 5.2-billion-euro deal for 24 of the multi-role combat jets and a frigate.

The Mistrals will be delivered in early March, and the contract provides for four months training in France for their Egyptian crews, Paris said in September.

The conflict in Syria and Russia's dramatic military intervention, as well as escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence, are also set to figure high in Valls' talks.

On Sunday, he is due to meet Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious institution in Sunni Islam.

Travelling on to Jordan, where France has deployed fighter bombers used to strike IS targets in Iraq and Syria, Valls will meet Iraqi Christian refugees in the country, which has taken in 650,000 Syrians fleeing war.

Accompanied by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and a high-ranking business delegation, he flies to Saudi Arabia late Monday.

On Tuesday he is due to have talks with King Salman, in a meeting during which Valls' office said he will request "a gesture of pardon, humanity and clemency" for a young Shiite, Ali al-Nimr, sentenced to death for taking part in 2012 demonstrations.

He will also attend a Franco-Saudi business forum in Riyadh in which 200 companies are taking part.