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PARIS (Reuters) - French officials defended President Francois Hollande's decision to push ahead with delivery of a helicopter carrier to Russia in defiance of calls by key allies Britain and the United States.
Speaking on the eve of an EU meeting to discuss sanctions on Moscow over the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, Hollande said late on Monday the first Mistral warship would be delivered as planned in October but a decision on a second would depend on Russia's attitude.
It was the clearest signal yet from Paris that it intends to go through with the controversial deal despite the Ukraine crisis and came only hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron said it would be "unthinkable" for his country to fulfill such an order.
"Hollande is not backing down. He is delivering the first (ship) despite the fact he is being asked not to," Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, head of Hollande's ruling Socialist Party, told i>Tele television on Tuesday.
"This is a false debate led by hypocrites ... When you see how many (Russian) oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard."
The 1.2-billion-euro ($1.62 billion) contract for the two warships, signed by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government in 2011, was the first by a NATO member country to supply Russia with military equipment.
Some 400 Russian sailors arrived in France on June 30 to begin training on the first Mistral. They are being housed aboard a Russian ship docked in the port of Saint Nazaire.
"Just because the Americans say 'jump' we shouldn't jump," Xavier Bertrand, a former minister under Sarkozy and senior member of his conservative opposition UMP party, told France Inter radio. "France's word, its signature, must be respected."
President Barack Obama expressed concerns about the Mistral contract in June because of Russia's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. A senior U.S. administration official said on Monday Washington continued to oppose the deliveries.
The wrangling over the warships highlights the difficulties the 28-member European Union has had in agreeing a joint line on dealing with Russia, a major gas supplier to countries such as Germany and Italy, as well as to central Europe.
While pressure for tougher action has mounted following the shooting down last week of a Malaysian Airlines plane in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by the separatists, EU foreign ministers were not expected to deepen sanctions significantly on Tuesday.
Diplomats said it was more likely they would agree to hasten implementation of measures already agreed against Russian individuals at their meeting in Brussels.
($1 = 0.7416 Euros)
Reporting by Yann Le Guernigou; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Paul Taylor