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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The first of 48 American-made F-16 fighter jets arrived in Poland on Thursday as part of a multibillion-dollar deal that is expected to bolster relations with the U.S.

U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe and Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, along with Polish President Lech Kaczynski and first lady Maria Kaczynski celebrated the arrival of the jets during a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday. Polish Minister of Defense Radek Sikorski along with other Polish military dignitaries also attended.

In a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy’s Web site, Ashe called the delivery an “important milestone in U.S.-Polish relations.”

But the planes almost didn’t reach the country’s capital.

Two of the four fighters destined for Poland had to turn around over the Atlantic Ocean on Monday after a technical problem in one of the planes, the Polish media reported. The planes later took off and landed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. However, the other two had to divert to Keflavik, Iceland, according to www.f-16.net, a leading Web reference and news site about the plane.

Poland signed a deal in 2003 to buy the new aircraft from Bethesda, Md.-based manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The purchase is worth nearly $3.6 billion, according to the Air Force. But there are other benefits as well.

The planes will allow the Polish air force to better work with the U.S. and NATO partners, said Air Force Col. Philip McDaniel, deputy director of Plans, Programs and Requirements at U.S. Air Forces in Europe headquarters at Ramstein Air Base.

“The ability of the Poles to be able to move into more NATO-compatible equipment is key to interoperability and to being able to work with — not just the U.S. — but all of NATO,” McDaniel said. “Because, let’s face it, the F-16s are a pretty widely used aircraft here in Europe. So, we’re pretty excited about this. This is a huge step for the Polish military and the Polish people.”

Nine of the 19 alliance nations fly the F-16, including Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Greece and the United States.

The contract, dubbed the Poland Peace Sky program, includes 36 one-seat F-16Cs and 12 two-seat F-16Ds, according to a Lockheed Martin news release.

The fighter deal includes support equipment and training for Polish pilots.

The jets will replace Poland’s Soviet-era fighters. The U.S.-made planes were chosen over aircraft from both Sweden and France.

The delivery will boost the number of F-16s operated by 24 countries in the world to 4,300, according to Lockheed Martin.

Only four aircraft are expected to arrive in Poland this week. The remainder will arrive in Poland in 2007 and 2008, according to the plane maker.


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