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Armenian Youth Federation members protest against what they call Azerbaijan's aggression against Armenia and the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region outside the Azerbaijani Consulate General in Los Angeles, California, U.S., Sept. 30, 2020.

MIKE BLAKE/Reuters

The federal government is refusing to divulge whether it’s been allowing exports of target-acquisition systems to a Turkish drone maker to slip through a ban on military exports to the NATO ally that’s been in place for nearly one year.

Canada’s defence equipment sales to Turkey are under close scrutiny now because of allegations that Turkish-made drones equipped with made-in-Canada gear are being used by Azerbaijan to attack Armenia in a growing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory.

Earlier this week, the Trudeau government announced it’s looking into allegations that made-in-Canada imaging and targeting systems are being used by Azerbaijan in the clash with Armenia. There is concern that exports meant for Turkey only have been diverted to Azerbaijan, a staunch ally of Turkey.

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But what it won’t talk about is whether it has granted an exemption that allows gear to slip through the arms embargo.

“Canada is monitoring developments in Turkey and the surrounding regions, and will take appropriate action should credible evidence be found regarding the misuse of any controlled Canadian good or technology, including to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human-rights or humanitarian law,” department of Global Affairs spokesman Michel Cimpaye said Wednesday.

He added, however, that Global Affairs “does not comment on individual permits or permit applications" to export military goods. In reports published this year on military exports, the department explained that it feels details of particular shipments would “infringe on commercial confidentiality.”

Last October, the federal government halted the approval process for new export permits to ship military goods to Turkey, citing Ankara’s “military incursion into Syria."

But then in April, it modified this ban 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.” Turkey and Canada are both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance.

Questions are now being raised about gear by L3Harris Wescam, a company in Burlington, Ont., that makes imaging and targeting systems containing laser designators to paint targets for laser-guided bombs launched by drones or fighter aircraft. Wescam technology has been used in drones operated by the military of Turkey, including aircraft made by Turkish firm Baykar. In June and July, widespread media reports indicated Turkey was selling drones to Azerbaijan.

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The Armenian National Committee of Canada, a grassroots organization representing the Armenian diaspora in this country, says it believes Canada has granted an exemption that allows Wescam gear to keep being shipped to Turkey.

Executive director Sevag Belian notes that federal lobbying records show activity by related companies this year.

The lobbyists' registry in Ottawa shows a representative of L3Harris Technologies, a company with affiliates including L3Harris Wescam, communicated with a staffer in the office of Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne in February on topics that included “international trade.” And, as first reported by Radio Canada International, a representative for Baykar, the Turkish drone maker, also communicated with a senior official in the Privy Council Office in February on “international trade.”

Officials at Wescam and L3Harris Technologies, the U.S. parent company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Belian with the Armenian National Committee said he is concerned Turkey may be using its NATO membership to secure the Wescam exports.

Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with arms-control group Project Ploughshares, said Statistics Canada data show exports to Turkey of the kind of gear Wescam makes dropped off after the moratorium in October, 2019, but began trending upward again in early 2020. “Government trade data for exports of Wescam-type sensors to Turkey, however, began again surging in the spring, strongly suggesting the exports resumed,” he said.

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Footage of missile strikes by Azerbaijani military from Sunday 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.

On Wednesday, the Turkish government issued a statement denying that Turkish drones or planes are helping the Azerbaijanis attack the Armenians.

“False claims have been made from official Armenian accounts, who cannot provide any evidence that the Turkish aircraft and UAVs were used against Armenia,” the statement from the Turkish Ministry of Defence said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), another term for drones.

Shahen Mirakian, co-chair of the Armenian National Committee of Canada, said this statement cannot be understood as ruling out sales of Turkish drones to Azerbaijan.

Hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics, have escalated over recent days, with dozens killed and injured in heavy fighting.

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