By Stephanie van den Berg
EINDHOVEN, Netherlands (Reuters) -The Netherlands and Denmark have said they will definitely give F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine once conditions for the transfer have been met, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Sunday as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited his country.
Rutte said that the Netherlands has 42 F-16s available in all, but it is too early to say whether all of them will be donated.
“Today we can announce that the Netherlands and Denmark commit to the transfer of F-16 aircraft to Ukraine and the Ukrainian Air Force,” in cooperation with the U.S. and other allies, he said in a joint press conference with Zelenskiy at a military air base in Eindhoven.
Zelenskiy who called the deal a “breakthrough agreement” said the exact number of aircraft will be discussed “a little later”.
The pledge is the first real promise of F-16’s for Ukraine’s armed forces and comes a few days after the United States approved the possible delivery of the fighter jets by the Netherlands and Denmark.
Zelenskiy arrived in the Netherlands on Sunday and is expected to continue to Denmark later in the day. The Danish foreign ministry also confirmed its commitment to delivering F-16s in a statement on Sunday.
Zelenskiy said the planes would help strengthen Ukraine’s air defences and help its counter-offensive.
“Aircraft can speed up this process,” he said.
“We are speaking about air defence, because we have the winter ahead of us and we understand more than anyone else in the world what winter without electricity is like.”
The Netherlands and Denmark have led a months-long push to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16’s and to ultimately deliver the jets to help counter the air superiority of Russia, whose forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Rutte said it was clear that F-16’s would not be transferred right away, as it will take time to properly train Ukrainian pilots and to prepare the needed infrastructure for the use of the planes.
“The military training will start in the very near future, and then it will take of course some time for the planes to get operational with well-trained pilots, but we’ll do everything to make it happen as soon as possible,” Rutte said
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on Saturday said training had begun for Ukrainian pilots, but it would take at least six months and possibly longer to also train engineers and mechanics.
Training will take place in Denmark and Romania, officials from a coalition of 11 nations have said.
Ukraine, which expects several dozens of pilots to be trained, said last week it did not expect to be able to use F-16’s this autumn or winter.
The Netherlands and Denmark have F-16s available to donate as their armed forces are transitioning to newer F-35 fighters.
On Saturday, Zelenskiy was in Sweden, where he discussed the possibility of receiving Gripen jets.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Stephanie van den Berg and Piroschka van der Wouw in Eindhoven, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen and Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv; Editing by David Goodman, Elaine Hardcastle)
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