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Ottawa has suspended export permits for Canadian target-acquisition gear that is at the centre of allegations that Azerbaijan is using Turkish-made drones to attack Armenia.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced the measure to suspend the permits to Turkey Monday. The move follows intensified fighting on the weekend in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave that belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but is populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

“In line with Canada’s robust export-control regime and due to the ongoing hostilities, I have suspended the relevant export permits to Turkey, so as to allow time to further assess the situation,” Mr. Champagne said.

Canada issued permits for export of target acquisition gear to Turkey in May despite arms embargo

Canada needs to pick a side as Nagorno-Karabakh tensions rise, Armenian PM says

It’s very rare for the Canadian government to suspend arms export permits. In recent years, Canada has enacted moratoriums on approval of new export permits – for destinations such as Saudi Arabia – but it has not frozen already-issued permits.

The Foreign Affairs Minister did not address Monday why Canada has still been shipping military goods to Turkey despite an arms embargo first announced by Ottawa nearly one year ago in response to Ankara’s incursions into northern Syria.

Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other on Monday of attacking civilian areas. The death toll is rising from the deadliest fighting in the South Caucasus region for more than 25 years.

Mr. Champagne’s announcement comes six days after Ottawa announced it was investigating allegations that Canadian-made imaging and targeting systems were being used in drones operated on behalf of the Azerbaijani military to attack Armenia in the growing conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Observers have expressed concern that exports earmarked for Turkey only have been diverted to Azerbaijan, a staunch ally of Ankara’s.

The Globe and Mail reported last week that, in May, the department of Global Affairs' export controls division issued permits enabling Burlington, Ont.-based L3Harris Wescam to ship seven MX-15D imaging and targeting systems to Turkish drone maker Baykar. The devices are valued at more than $1-million each.

Monday’s permit suspension could cause problems for that shipment order – even for target acquisition gear already shipped to Turkey. That’s because the permits contain provisions allowing at least some of the devices to be sent to Canada for repairs and then re-exported, according to a source familiar with the matter. These systems can’t be re-exported after repair if the underlying permit is suspended. The Globe is not naming the source because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said he’s surprised Canada is once again obliged to clamp down on military exports to Turkey. Canada and Turkey are both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance.

“What is so strange about this whole situation is the government knew one year ago that Turkey was not abiding by its obligations as a NATO member and that’s why they made the decision a year ago to ban further military exports ... but then they reversed course and decided to let some through.”

In April, Ottawa modified its arms embargo on Turkey and added a loophole. It said prospective exporters should assume requests to ship Group 2 military goods – a sprawling category that includes most goods that are considered weapons – would be rejected. But, Ottawa added, exceptions would be made for matters relating to “NATO co-operation programs.”

Arms researchers and Armenian Canadians have said they believe Azerbaijan is using Turkish-made drones that include Wescam gear in military operations against Armenia. Footage of missile strikes by the Azerbaijani military posted on the internet contain a graphical overlay on the video that bears a very strong resemblance to the proprietary graphical overlays of systems manufactured by L3Harris Wescam.

Ottawa is required under Canadian law and under the international Arms Trade Treaty to prevent, detect and stop the diversion of military goods to users other than intended customers. It’s also compelled to stop exports of such restricted goods that are shown to be used to harm civilians.

Wescam – owned by U.S. parent, L3Harris Technologies – makes imaging and targeting systems containing laser designators to paint targets for laser-guided bombs launched by drones or fighter aircraft. The company’s technology has been used in drones operated by Turkey’s military, including aircraft made by Turkish firm Baykar. In June and July, widespread media reports indicated Turkey was selling drones to Azerbaijan.

Officials at Wescam and L3Harris Technologies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said Ottawa should not have been making exceptions to its arms embargo on Turkey. “There needs to be recognition from the government that Canada’s policy and practice on arms control are flawed and need a comprehensive review – beyond just Turkey.”

Also, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday he is sending Mr. Champagne to Europe shortly “to discuss with our allies the developments in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, particularly in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

The Armenian National Committee of Canada (ANCC), a grassroots organization that advocates on issues of interest to Armenian Canadians, has said for some time it is concerned Turkey may be using its NATO membership to secure the Wescam exports.

On Monday, the ANCC co-president Shahen Mirakian welcomed the permit suspension and urged a conclusion to the federal government’s investigation, which he predicted will find “these systems were used by Azerbaijani forces against civilian and military targets ... contrary to the terms under which they were exported to Turkey.”

He said Canada must close any loophole that enables arms exports to Turkey on the grounds of NATO co-operation.

“We believe that Canada has given Turkey far too many chances to prove that it is a reliable customer for Canadian arms exports.”

The Turkish embassy in Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With a report from Reuters

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