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Croatia gives Israel deadline for sale of US-made F-16 jets

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatia urged Israel on Thursday to overcome a rare disagreement with the United States and to confirm it can carry through on a deal to sell 12 used American-made fighter jets.

Croatia's Defense Ministry said it needed an answer from Israel by Jan. 11 or the Balkan country's $500 million order for a dozen F-16 aircraft would be canceled. Israel made a tentative deal to sell the upgraded F-16 Barak fighters to Croatia in March pending U.S. approval for allowing the jets to go to a third party.

The deal ran into trouble after the U.S. State Department hinted that Israel needs to strip off the upgrades that were added after Israel took delivery of the planes from the U.S. some 30 years ago. Israel upgraded the jets with sophisticated electronic and radar systems, which was crucial in Croatia's decision to buy the planes from Israel rather than from the U.S.

"If the planes are not in accordance with what we have agreed, the deal will not be carried out and we will have another purchase bid," Croatia's parliament speaker, Gordan Jandrokovic, said. Relations between the Trump administration and Israel have been very close, particularly on defense issues. But the sale of the jets to Croatia appears to be an exception. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Tuesday in Brazil but didn't agree on a way to end the impasse.

"We are expecting final and clear stands from both Israel and the United States on this issue and then we will make a final decision," Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said. Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic said Thursday that Israel provided guarantees during the contract bidding process that U.S. officials would greenlight the sale.

"Can you imagine that we do not believe Israel?" Krsticevic asked. The controversy over the bid has triggered calls for the defense minister's resignation. The deal is Croatia's largest single military purchase since it split from the Yugoslav federation during a 1991-95 war.

NATO member Croatia faces a mini arms race with Russian ally Serbia, which recently received six used Russian MiG-29 fighter jets.

AP writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed.

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