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Thai army chooses Russian helicopters

Thailand's army plans to order six Mil Mi-17 multirole utility helicopters, boosting Russia's attempts to break into the country's defence market and continuing Bangkok's move away from its dependence on the USA for arms requirements.

The army says the Mi-17 met its requirements and was cheaper than the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk that it also considered. Thailand will pay 950 million baht ($27.4 million) for an initial three helicopters, and spend a further 50 million baht on pilot training and other equipment.

"We are buying three Mi-17 helicopters for the price of one Black Hawk. The Mi-17 can also carry more than 30 troops, while the Black Hawk could carry only 13 soldiers. These were the key factors behind the decision," says the army.

Many of Thailand's current US-made military helicopters have been grounded due to a shortage of spare parts and poor maintenance. However, plans to upgrade some of the army's Bell UH-1H and Bell 212 helicopters have been cancelled, the service says, with the $30 million allocated for this work to instead purchase three more Mi-17s. Delivery schedules have not been revealed.

But industry sources say the deal could come undone if there is another change in Thailand's government. Prime minister and defence minister Somchai Wongsawat, who took office in September after a military government gave way after a year in power, has given the contract his approval. However, his party is facing daily street protests from thousands of Thais who are opposed to the government's alleged links to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Moscow has been actively lobbying Bangkok's armed forces and politicians for several years and offered to sell Sukhoi Su-30 fighters in exchange for chicken meat in 2004, and has also been trying to sell it tanks, armoured personnel carriers and anti-tank missiles. But it was rebuffed last year when Thailand ordered six Saab Gripen C/D fighters and a Saab 340 regional airliner equipped with a Saab Microwave Systems Erieye airborne early warning and control system radar under a deal worth 19 billion baht.

Both sales represent a significant departure for the Thai armed forces, which has previously only used US helicopters and fighters like the Northrop F-5 and Lockheed Martin F-16.