<TABLE border=0 cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width=452><TBODY><TR><TD vAlign=top width=452 colSpan=2>Published May 26, 2009

</TD></TR><TR><TD vAlign=top width=452 colSpan=2>French base to fight pirates, guard oil lanes
France's first Gulf base to boost security; it'll also build Louvre branch in Abu Dhabi

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(ABU DHABI) French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said yesterday that his nation's first military base in the Gulf is an important step in international cooperation to fight piracy and safeguard crucial oil routes.

<TABLE class=picBoxL cellSpacing=2 width=100 align=left><TBODY><TR><TD></TD></TR><TR class=caption><TD>More protection: French soldiers checking a boat that held three pirates who were captured on April 30 and taken to the French warship 'Nivose' (background). The new base will allow the French to step up patrols </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>The naval station is France's first major foothold in the Gulf and is expected to contribute vessels to anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and guard vital Persian Gulf shipping lanes. It also raises France's profile in the growing tensions between Iran and Gulf Arab states.
'The world's seas must remain free from threats,' Mr Kouchner told a regional security conference here in the United Arab Emirates capital.
He is expected to be joined later by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is scheduled to inaugurate the naval base here today.
Mr Sarkozy also plans to lead a groundbreaking ceremony for a branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi and try to push ahead talks for the UAE purchase of a reported 60 French-made Rafale fighter jets in a possible deal estimated at more than 6 billion euros (S$12.1 billion) over several years.
The UAE air force currently has France's Mirage 2000-9 fighters as well as American and British aircraft.
Mr Sarkozy said the opening of the French naval base - which also supports separate air and ground forces - is a recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf.
'This region is strategic for world stability,' he told the state-run Emirates News Agency in a statement before his arrival.
He also plans to use the visit to reinforce warnings to Iran to convince the world it does not seek nuclear weapons or expansion of its influence in the region. Last week, Iran test-fired a Sajjil-2 missile with a range that covers the entire Middle East.
'The Iranian crisis is one of the biggest issues threatening world security,' Mr Sarkozy told the agency. 'My position was clear and I still persist that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons is not acceptable.'
He said the 'Iranian leadership have to choose now: either they return to the international community fold or face more isolation.'
The new French base in Abu Dhabi - the nation's first major foreign military expansion since the end of the colonial era in the 1960s and its first outside Africa - will be the Gulf hub for French warships and will oversee operations at an army training camp and three French combat planes at the Al-Dhafra base.
The United States, however, remains the major foreign military presence in the Gulf with key air bases, logistics operations and the headquarters of the 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
In an interview with Diplomatie magazine, Mr Sarkozy said that, with the base, France 'expects to fully participate in the stability of this region, which is essential to world equilibrium'.
Some of the most pressing missions may come off Somalia, where pirates have expanded their assaults on ships in the Gulf of Aden and farther into the Indian Ocean. Pirates have attacked more than 80 ships this year alone in the Gulf of Aden, and successfully hijacked about 30 of them.
On April 10, French commandos freed four French nationals whose yacht had been commandeered by pirates. Two pirates and one of the hostages were killed in the firefight to retake the sailboat, and three pirates were taken prisoner. The operation was the third such raid by French commandos against pirates in the past year.
Last December, the leaders of the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council, of which the UAE is a part, denounced piracy as a 'form of terrorism'. 'This (French) base will be part of the international efforts to combat piracy,' said Major-General Khalid Abdullah al-Buainnain, president of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
Mr Sarkozy's other planned event - symbolically beginning the construction of the ' site on a Gulf island off Abu Dhabi - is part of an ambitious cultural and educational project that will include a branch of New York's Guggenheim museum and a satellite campus of New York University.
Last week, Human Rights Watch urged the international institutions on the island complex to ensure protections for migrant labourers working on the site. -- AP