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SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov on Friday cast doubt over the Balkan country's decision to enter talks to buy new Swedish-made Gripen warplanes to replace its ageing Soviet-designed MiG-29s.
NATO member Bulgaria has said it wants to seal a deal by the year-end to acquire eight new or secondhand fighter jets between 2018 and 2022 in order to modernise its fleet and improve its compliance with the military alliance's standards.
In April, Bulgaria's interim government said it would enter into talks to buy eight new Gripen warplanes made by SAAB, after approving a Defence Ministry-produced ranking which picked the Swedish jet over an offer from Portugal for secondhand U.S. F-16s and an Italian offer of secondhand Eurofighter Typhoons.
At the time, the interim defence minister, Stefan Yanev, said the decision meant that when a new administration took over on May 4 talks could begin with Sweden.
But officials from the centre-right GERB party now in power has said the interim government should not have made the call on a deal worth an estimated 1.5 billion levs ($860.93 million).
"I want to look at it (the ranking)," Borisov, who returned as prime minister for the third time since 2009, told reporters. "We will buy when we are ready. The plane is not the most important thing in an army."
"Let's see if it's right to take aircraft straight away or to look at land forces, ships…"
Borisov suggested an overhaul of engines could keep the MiGs in the air for another 11 years.
President Rumen Radev has said the GERB-led coalition government would be putting politics ahead of military expertise if it rejected the defence ministry's ranking of the offers.
Borisov's comments are the latest twist in a long-running saga that has seen a succession of Bulgarian governments fail to make a decision on which warplane to pick.
Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union three years later.
($1 = 1.7423 leva)
Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by Richard Lough