BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Sweden's Saab is hopeful that Croatia could enter the market for fighter jets sooner rather than later, opening up another sales prospect for its Gripen aircraft, a company executive said on Saturday.
Magnus Lewis-Olsson, Saab's head of Europe, said the country looks to have decided to build a modern jet fighter force and would look to take offers sooner than might have been expected.
"It has gone from something we thought was going to take a little bit longer, and maybe the Croatians thought that as well, but now it feels like it is, if not urgent, then at least it is happening quicker than anticipated," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum in the Slovak capital.
"It does feel like it is becoming more relevant in the next one or two years."
Croatia, a member of the NATO military alliance since 2009, needs to modernise its air force which operates a squadron of MIG-21 fighter jets.
It has already inspected a Gripen and will continue to gather information from other companies this year, Saab officials said. "We've had air shows there, we have been there, we have been there with simulators. The combined signal is, 'Yes, we want to buy fighters'," Lewis-Olsson said.
Serbia, Croatia's neighbour and a foe in the 1991-1995 war, also wants to modernise its outdated air force. It recently purchased six MIG-29 fighters from Russia and nine utility helicopters from the Airbus.
Saab has been looking to increase the use of Gripen jets in central and eastern Europe. The Czech Republic operates 14 jets and Slovakia - which recently signed a "Joint Sky" agreement with the Czechs - has had talks about buying Gripens but is also fielding offers from competitors.
Bulgaria last month decided to enter talks on acquiring Gripens although a new government has been reviewing the decision.
Lewis-Olsson said Saab remained confident it would hold talks on buying or leasing jets in both Slovakia and Bulgaria.
Reporting by Jason Hovet and Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Greg Mahlich