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France inks jet sale to Egypt as Cairo bombs IS

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Rafale fighter. Photo: Dassault Aviation - F. Robineau

CAIRO (AFP): France signed an agreement with Egypt on Monday for the first foreign sale of its Rafale fighters, in a deal boosting Cairo's military as it tackles jihadists on two fronts.

Paris hopes the 5.2 billion euro (USD 5.9 billion) deal for 24 Rafale fighters to be delivered later this year -- which comes as Cairo launched air strikes against the Islamic State group in Libya -- will prompt others to snap up its premier combat jet.

For Egypt, the agreement is a show of support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew his Islamist predecessor in 2013 and wants to break a US monopoly over arms sales to Cairo.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Sisi oversaw the signing of the deal at a presidential palace in Cairo.

"Our two countries are pursuing a common struggle against terrorism," Le Drian said during the signing ceremony.

"Egypt's stability is an important element in the stability of the countries overlooking the Mediterranean sea, especially your country that has witnessed recent terrorist events," Egyptian Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi told Le Drian.

The overall deal includes three contracts with Egypt -- supplying Rafale fighter jets, an FREMM multi-mission frigate from naval group DCNS, and missiles.

Before heading to Cairo, Le Drian had said the beheadings of Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya that prompted the air strikes earlier on Monday was an "additional reason" for Cairo to boost its security.

The sale comes as welcome news to cash-strapped France, which is even diverting three jets away from its own air force for the delivery.

"This contract puts Rafale at the top of the pyramid of combat aircraft," Le Drian said.

French President Francois Hollande said the agreement -- clinched in only three months of negotiations -- provided Cairo with "a quality aircraft" and was important for Egypt "taking into account the threats existing around the country".

With Libya wracked by instability to the west and the threat from militants linked to IS in it Sinai Peninsula to the east, Egypt plays a key role in providing stability in a troubled region, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday.

France is hoping the deal will act as a catalyst to unblock hoped-for sales to other countries.

Eric Trappier, chief executive of Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the Rafale, has said he is "very confident" that three years of exclusive talks with India on the sale of 126 the jets worth 12 billion euros would soon result in a deal.

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