Brasilia: Brazil will likely designate the winner of a multi-billion-dollar tender to supply its air force with modern jet fighters by the end of March, the head of the service, General Juniti Saito, said Tuesday.

Saito stressed that it would be a “political and strategic decision” made by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, following the air force’s technical evaluation of the three bids.

France’s Rafale, an omnirole fighter made by Dassault, is seen as the leading contender after Lula and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last September that negotiations were underway for Brazil to buy 36 of them.

Lula said his preference for the French jet derived from France’s offer to give Brazil all the technology involved in the Rafale’s construction — a key point for Brazil, which wants the knowhow to one day make its own modern fighters.

But the air force, through leaks in the Brazilian media, has indicated it prefers the much cheaper Gripen NG jet from Sweden’s Saab.

The third option, the F/A-18 Super Hornet from US group Boeing, is seen as with only an outside chance because of US refusal in the past to allow Brazil to export aircraft using US technology.

Early this month, the Brazilian government denied it had made a final decision to buy the Rafales, and said a newspaper report that Dassault had lopped two billion dollars off their total price to secure the contract was baseless.

The daily, Folha de S. Paulo, published an unsourced report saying France was willing to sell the Rafales for a discounted 6.2 billion dollars — down from 8.2 billion dollars — plus another four billion dollars in maintenance over the next three decades.

The Gripen was priced at 4.5 billion dollars plus 1.5 billion dollars in maintenance, while the F/A-18s were valued at 5.7 billion plus 1.9 billion in maintenance.

France is keen to make Brazil the first export customer of its Rafale, after losing out in several other tenders around the world.