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Fifteen French fighter jets incorporated into Greek air force

Fifteen French-built fighter jets were formally incorporated into Greece’s air force Friday. French defense minister and air force chief of staff attended the ceremony.

The Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 planes were purchased as part of a EUR1.2 billion deal in August 2000 with France's Dassault Aviation and included the upgrade of 10 of Greece's existing 34 Mirage 2000s. The new planes are expected to have a life span of 15 years.

Defense Minister Evangelos Meimarakis met with his French counterpart, Herve Morin, in Athens.

"Alongside NATO, Europe must develop its own autonomous means that will allow it to ensure security and stability on its own continent but also in regions where traditionally and historically Europe is present," Morin said.

As an example, Morin said it was necessary to improve European naval cooperation in order to combat smuggling and illegal immigration.

"For us Europe isn't just an economic free trade area, for us Europe is a political project. And this political project necessarily is based on a European defense," he said.

The two ministers also discussed Balkan issues and the EU's relations with Turkey.

On Kosovo, Morin said it was "essential that the whole of the European Union remains united on this issue and that we maintain our effort" regardless of whether internationally brokered talks on resolving the final status of the Serbian province are successful by the Dec. 10 U.N. deadline.

On Turkey, Morin reiterated France's assessment that there was still a long way to go in the talks Ankara is conducting with the EU. He said it would take years - possibly decades - to decide "what will be the best solution for relations between the European Union and Turkey. Is it integration or a privileged partnership?"

The two ministers later attended a ceremony at Tanagra Air Force base, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of the capital, formally incorporating the jets into the air force.

"Today, in the framework of European defense, we wish to give a new boost to this alliance between France and Greece," Morin said.

A French pilot is flying with Greece's 114th Fighter Squadron to help familiarize Greek pilots with the Mirage 2000-5 Mk2, said Gen. Stephane Abrial, the French air force's chief of staff.

Apart from the French fighter jets, Greece also has U.S.-built F-16s.

For decades Greece has spent a large portion of its gross domestic product - at one time about 5 percent - on defense to stave off a perceived threat from Turkey.

The two neighbors have long-standing disputes over the war-divided island of Cyprus and the Aegean Sea. They have nearly gone to war three times since 1974, and fighter jets from the two countries often intercept each other over the Aegean.