By Ulf Laessing and Khalid Abelaziz
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan is in talks with Ukraine to buy five Antonov planes, its transport minister said on Wednesday, seeking to work around U.S. trade sanctions that have devastated its air fleet.
Sudan Airways, one of Africa's oldest airlines and which used to fly across the continent and as far away as London and Frankfurt, is a shadow of its former self.
Largely shut off from the airline industry due to a U.S. trade embargo, Sudan Airways is down to less than 10 Airbus, Boeing and Fokker aircraft - most of them were bought second-hand, some more than 15 years ago.
To end the daily struggle to find a maintenance firm willing to ignore the embargo and sell Airbus and Boeing spare parts for a hefty premium, Sudan Airways wants to use Ukrainian-made Antonovs in the future.
The government signed with a preliminary deal with Ukraine to buy five Antonov planes choosing An-158 and An-148 models, transport minister Ahmed Babiker Nahar told Reuters after visiting Kiev last week. Sudan hopes to finance the planes with a loan from Antonov, he said.
Kiev-based Antonov confirmed talks with Sudan.
"A contract about delivering planes has not been signed yet. Talks are going on," a spokeswoman said, adding that the question of financing the deal was still being discussed.
While Airbus and Boeing refuse to deal with Sudan to avoid upsetting U.S. authorities due to their large U.S. business, Antonov has been long delivering planes to Sudan.
The Sudanese army and the government's fleet operation have Antonovs, several of which have been involved in recent crashes.
A military Antonov An-12 crashed near the capital Khartoum in October, killing 13 people. A government minister and 31 other people died when an Antonov An-26 went down in bad weather in mountains in South Kordofan state in August.
"The new models have a very high standard and their safety is very good," Nahar said.
He said the deal, which would be probably finalized during the visit of an Ukrainian delegation in March, would involve a maintenance arrangement with an Antonov workshop in Khartoum.
The minister gave no details on the value of the deal, saying only that part of it would be probably be funded by a loan. Sudan struggles with a budget crisis after losing most oil production, the biggest source for state income, to South Sudan when it became independent in 2011.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev. Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)