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UPDATE 1-Bulgaria opts for Swedish Gripen combat jets

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SOFIA, April 26 Bulgaria has decided to start talks with Sweden to acquire eight new Gripen combat jets made by SAAB, interim deputy prime minister Stefan Yanev said on Wednesday, as the Balkan country seeks to replace its ageing Soviet-designed MiG-29s.

The Balkan country has picked the Swedish offer in preference to an offer from Portugal of secondhand U.S. F-16s equipped with U.S. weaponry and an offer from Italy of secondhand Eurofighter Typhoon fighters.

A deal is estimated to be worth about 1.5 billion levs ($836 million).

A special commission for the negotiations is expected to be set up within a week, Yanev said. The talks with Sweden will be held by Bulgaria's next government, which is expected to take office next week.

"Sweden's offer is ranked first, followed by Portugal and Italy," interim Defence Minister Yanev said. "It is normal that talks start with the first-ranked country."

Last year Bulgaria's parliament approved a plan to acquire eight new or secondhand fighter jets between 2018 and 2020 to improve the country's compliance with NATO standards and replace its MiG-29s.

A final deal would still need parliamentary approval. (Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Greg Mahlich)

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