TEL AVIV (RFE/RL) – Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov visited the headquarters of Israeli defense companies and met with their top executives during an official visit to Israel, one of Azerbaijan’s main arms suppliers.
The visit comes in the wake of Israeli authorities’ decision to halt exports to Azerbaijan of “suicide” drones manufactured by an Israeli company accused of attacking an Armenian army position with them recently.
On September 14, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said that Hasanov familiarized himself with weapons and ammunition manufactured by “leading enterprises” of the Israeli defense industry. It did not name those firms.
In a statement cited by Azerbaijani news agencies, the ministry said Hasanov discussed with their chief executives “military-technical cooperation” between the two countries. It did not elaborate.
Hasanov met with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the start of his visit on Monday. Official Azerbaijani sources said the two men discussed bilateral ties and “regional security.” The Israeli Defense Ministry issued no statements on the talks.
Lieberman, whose party is a junior partner in Israel’s coalition government, is a staunch backer of close ties with Baku. He has repeatedly made pro-Azerbaijani statements on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
An Israeli drone manufacturer, Aeronautics Defense Systems (ADS), said late last month that the Israeli Defense Ministry’s export control agency has at least temporarily banned it from delivering a $20 million batch of Orbiter 1K unmanned aircraft to a key foreign client. In a statement, ADS did not specify the buyer of the sophisticated weapon carrying special explosive payload. But it did attribute the ban to an ongoing inquiry conducted by the Israeli agency.
The Israeli newspaper “Maariv” reported on August 13 that the agency launched an investigation after receiving a formal complaint stemming from ADS’s commercial dealings with the Azerbaijani government. It said ADS representatives traveled to Azerbaijan this summer to finalize a contract for the sale of Orbiter drones to the Azerbaijani military.
The paper claimed that two Israeli drone operators working for the company rebuffed Azerbaijani officials’ demand to demonstrate the use of the deadly drone by hitting the Armenian position. But other, more senior ADS executives agreed to launch the deadly craft on the target, according to “Maariv.” ADS denied the report.
According to Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian-backed Defense Army, the Azerbaijani military most recently attacked its frontline positions with a suicide drone on July 7. The commander of an army unit stationed in northeastern Karabakh said in early August that two of his soldiers were lightly wounded in the incident.
Armenia’s Deputy Defense Minister Davit Pakhchanian last week praised the reported ban on drone sales to Baku but said Israel must be “consistent” in preventing its citizens’ direct involvement in Azerbaijani military operations. Pakhchanian claimed that Israeli arms dealers have repeatedly struck Armenian targets at the behest of Azerbaijani officials.
The Azerbaijani army heavily used similar suicide drones manufactured by another Israeli company, Israel Aerospace Industries, during the April 2016 war in Karabakh. Baku had bought the Harop drones as well as air-defense and artillery systems and anti-tank rockets as part of multimillion-dollar defense contracts signed with Israeli firms.
Armenia has long expressed concern at the Israeli-Azerbaijani arms deals, saying that they undermine international efforts to end the Karabakh conflict.
The drone scandal was exposed by the Israeli paper more than two weeks after Israeli Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi visited Yerevan in an apparent bid to improve his country’s frosty relationship with Armenia. Hanegbi met with Prime Minister Karen Karapetian and other senior Armenian officials.
In what may be a related development, a group of Israeli parliamentarians arrived in the Armenian capital earlier this week. They include two deputy speakers of the Knesset. One of them, Tali Ploskov, chairs an Israel-Armenia parliamentary “friendship group.” Her Kulanu party is also represented in the Israeli government.
The Israeli delegation met with Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian on Wednesday. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said the two sides “exchanged views on a number of regional issues.” It gave no details.