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Brazil beefs up air defenses with German guns for sports events

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil plans to buy 34 used anti-aircraft tanks from the German army to help bolster air defenses as it prepares to hold two global sporting events and host a visit by Pope Francis.

The Brazilian army said the contract to buy the self-propelled Gepard 1A2 anti-aircraft guns would be signed in the next few days and included ordnance, maintenance and training. The value is still being negotiated, an army statement said, adding the first lot would arrive by June.

The Flakpanzer Gepard, as it is known, is armed with two 35 mm guns mounted on a rotating turret atop a Leopard 1 tank chassis. It was phased out three years ago by the German army and replaced with missile systems.

Brazil has spent little on defense since civilian rule replaced military dictatorship almost 20 years ago. The emerging South American economic power is now seeking to modernize its armed forces to defend its new offshore oil resources, protect is porous Amazon and western border from drug traffickers and take on international peacekeeping missions.

It is also trying to beef up internal security and anti-terrorism capabilities before hosting the World Cup soccer tournament next year and the 2016 Olympic Games.

In two months, the South American country will host the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for the 32-nation world soccer tournament a year later.

The Brazilian army officer in command of anti-aircraft artillery, General Marcio Heise, told Globo's G1 news service that the first eight Gepards would arrive in June.

He said they would be deployed in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, where the Confederations Cup kicks off on June 15, and in Rio de Janeiro, where the tournament ends on June 30, and also for the papal visit to Rio in July.

Brazil agreed in February to purchase Russian medium-range surface-to-air Pantsir S1 combined missile and artillery batteries and Igla-S shoulder-held missiles.

The Brazilian air force plans to replace its fleet of aging fighter planes, but has delayed a decision on the purchase of 36 new jets, a coveted defense contract worth $4 billion initially. Boeing Co, France's Dassault Aviation SA and Sweden's Saab are in the running for the deal.

The rearmament plan is also aimed at helping boost local defense and technology industries. Brazil is building five submarines in partnership with France in a $3.95 billion program that includes a nuclear-powered submarine. The reactor is a Brazilian design.

Local aircraft maker Embraer SA is developing the KC-390 military transport for Brazil's armed forces and to compete against the Lockheed-Martin C-130 Hercules transport.

Embraer recently won a contract to supply the U.S. Air Force with ground attack Super-Tucano aircraft, which will be provided to the Afghan armed forces.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Jeb Blount and Peter Cooney)

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