SOFIA, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Bulgaria wants to choose a supplier of at least eight fighter jets by March in a long-delayed deal estimated at about 700 million levs ($473 million), defence minister Anyo Angelov said on Wednesday.
The European Union's poorest state, which joined NATO in 2004 and is a staunch backer of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, needs to bring its ageing Russian-made aircraft up to the standards of the military alliance.
Angelov said the centre-right government has given mandate to the defence ministry to start talks with countries that have or produce fighter jets, such as the United States, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Israel and Sweden.
"Based on these talks, the government will propose an investment project that includes the concrete type of the new fighter jet, and possibly all other elements of the deal like delivery," Angelov told reporters after a government meeting.
In a draft decision the deal was valued at about 700 million levs, but Angelov said the government decided not to impose a financial threshold to allow flexible negotiations.
Bulgarian media said the Balkan country will be considering buying second-hand Lockheed Martin F-16 from Portugal or the United States, as well as second-hand EADS Eurofighters from Italy or Germany.
It will also look into the option of buying new Saab AB Gripen jets.
Angelov said Bulgaria would not hold an open competition because it did not want to rule out buying second-hand aircraft.
At present, Bulgaria's air force operates with 15 Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets and 3 MiG-21.
In September, neighbouring Romania approved a plan to buy up to 12 second-hand F-16s.
Both neighbours had to shelve multi-billion euro plans to buy new fighter jets in 2009 as their economies fell into recession.