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France defends possible warship sale to Russia

* Some in NATO concerned about warship sale

* Minister says Mistral sale won’t hurt Georgia’s security

UNITED NATIONS, Sept 17 (Reuters) - France’s defense minister on Friday defended the possible sale of French Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia and dismissed concerns that it could undermine the security of neighboring Georgia.

Moscow wants Mistral class warships to modernize hardware exposed as outdated during its war against Georgia in 2008. Earlier this month Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was in exclusive talks with France on the matter.

Some NATO allies, however, have voiced concern and urged Paris not to sell Moscow high-tech systems that could be used against Russia’s former communist neighbors.

“Russia is no longer the USSR (Soviet Union),” French Defense Minister Herve Morin told reporters after meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other top U.N. officials.

“Furthermore, can we consider for even a moment that the sale of a few vessels can significantly change the balance of force and the strategic situation between Georgia and Russia? We need to be serious on this issue,” he said through an interpreter.

Morin said he had made those arguments to NATO members who voiced concern about the possible Mistral sale, making clear to them Paris’ view that it was vital to have a “dialogue with Russia” -- including dialogue on military and security issues.

Russia had been in talks for months over the helicopter carriers, which are built by French naval shipyard DCNS, owned by defense electronics group Thales TCFP.PA. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in July he was "certain" France would build the two ships.

Moscow has said that if it had had the Mistral during its 2008 war with the former Soviet republic Georgia, it would have achieved its military goal in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.

However, the potential sale by France of one or more of the 400-500 million euro ($482-602 million) carriers has alarmed Washington and some eastern European NATO nations.

Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Philip Barbara

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