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Israeli arms firm investigated over live drone test on Armenian soldiers

Azerbaijan is one of the biggest recipients of Israeli weapons
Armenian servicemen of the self-defence army of Nagorno-Karabakh fire an artillery shell towards Azeri forces in 2016 (AFP)

The Israeli defence ministry and police are investigating an Israeli weapons manufacturer after allegations they live-tested a drone on an Armenian army position, while trying to sell the vehicle to Azerbaijan.

The investigation has been going on for several weeks, Haaretz reported on Tuesday, and a gag order into the specifics of the investigation remains in place.

“An investigation is ongoing against Aeronautics Defense Systems Ltd in regards to a deal with a significant customer,” Israeli police said in a statement on Tuesday.

Whilst it is not expressly stated that this refers to Azerbaijan, that is widely understood to be the case.

A spokesperson for Aeronautics Defense Systems told MEE the company would “fully cooperate with the police and we hope the investigation is concluded as soon as possible.”

In August, the defence ministry withdrew some of the company’s export licences, preventing the company from selling its Oribiter 1k drone to Azerbaijan, one of its biggest clients, after a complaint was made.

According to the original complaint, leaked to the Maariv newspaper, a team from the arms company was asked to operate the unmanned device, armed with explosives, against a manned Armenian outpost. Such an act would be illegal under Israeli law.

The Orbiter deal with Azerbaijan was meant to be worth $20m over the next two years (AFP)

When the drone operators refused the request, managers from the company carried out the demand, the complaint alleges.

Lacking experience, the two managerial officials missed their target directly, but two Armenian soldiers were nevertheless wounded in the July attack, according to the Armenian press agency.

Aeronautics Defense Systems at the time denied the allegations, and said that the company “never carries out demonstrations on live targets, as is true in this case as well.”

But the spokesperson for the company on Tuesday told MEE that: “We don’t say whether the incident happened or didn’t happen.”

Earlier this month, Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, writing for Middle East Eye, reported that Commtac, a subsidiary of Aeronautics Defense Systems, had sold equipment installed on Chinese-made drones operated by the Myanmar army, accused by the UN of carrying out ethnic cleansing against the country’s minority Rohingya Muslim population.

Israel's badly kept secret: Selling arms to regimes at war
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Azerbaijan and Armenia have an ongoing dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which has an ethnic Armenian majority but lies within Azerbaijan.

Tensions flared between the two countries in early 2016, when dozens of soldiers were killed on each side.

Israel and Azerbaijan are important allies and both share a border with Iran.

In 2016, Azerbaijan imported $243m worth of weapons from Israel, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In the same year, a Azeri army drone manufactured by another Israeli company, Israel Aerospace Industries, killed seven Armenian "volunteers", according to the Armenian defence ministry.

The kamikaze drone deal with Azerbaijan was expected to be worth $20m over the next two years, according to Aeronautics Defense Systems.

Over the last 20 years, Azerbaijan has been the fifth-biggest recipient of Israeli arms exports.

The Israeli defence ministry said it was unable to comment further on the investigations.

The Azeri and Armenian defence ministries have not responded to a request for comment.

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