By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - France's Dassault Aviation SA has withdrawn its Rafale fighter from the race to supply Canada with 88 new military jets, three sources familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The move means that four manufacturers are left in the competition, which Canadian officials say will be worth between C$15 billion ($11.4 billion) and C$19 billion. Canada is due to issue its final requirement for the fleet next May.
Defense sources have long said the Canadian air force favors a U.S. plane, either the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 or Boeing Co's F-18 Super Hornet.
Canada's Liberal government, stung by a series of procurement mishaps over previous decades, insists the contest will be an open one despite the armed forces' close links to the U.S. military and widespread use of American equipment.
The three sources, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the situation, said Dassault was not convinced it could meet the necessary security requirements.
France does not belong to the so-called Five Eyes group of nations that share top secret intelligence - Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. This would have made operating with U.S. forces complicated, the sources said.
Sweden's Saab AB, one of the four remaining contenders, faces the same challenge with its Gripen jet.
The Airbus consortium, makers of the Eurofighter, includes Five Eyes member Britain.
The office of federal Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, in overall charge of major military purchases, said it was looking into the reported withdrawal.
Canada has been trying unsuccessfully for almost a decade to buy replacements for its aging F-18 fighters, some of which are 40-years old. The former Conservative administration said in 2010 it would buy 65 F-35 jets but later scrapped the decision, triggering years of delays and reviews.
Canada is a member of the international consortium that developed the F-35. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power in 2015 vowing not to buy the plane on the grounds that it was too costly, but Ottawa has since softened its line.
($1 = 1.3130 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Himani Sarkar)