Azeri Defense Ministry Plane Landed Twice in Israel During Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh

Azerbaijan, which skirmished with Armenia in early April, is reported to have bought almost $5 billion worth of arms from Israel.

A large cargo plane belonging to the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has landed in Israel twice in recent weeks, apparently at the Uvda military airfield in the Negev. The flights, which took off from the Azerbaijani capital Baku, occurred about two weeks ago, in the midst of the latest round of fighting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian armies in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to a publicly-accessible online flight database.

Israel and Azerbaijan have a strategic alliance going back many years. The fact that Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim republic, along with its geographical proximity to Iran, makes it very important to Israel. Azerbaijan is also one of Israel’s chief oil suppliers.

According to foreign reports, Israel has become a key supplier of arms to Azerbaijan in recent years, selling nearly $5 billion worth of weapons over the past four years. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited Baku in September 2014 and discussed expanding security cooperation between the two countries.

The Ilyushin 76 cargo plane arrived in Israel on April 4 and again on April 6, according to an internet flight database. The plane, which flies under the call sign AZAF8 (Azerbaijani Air Force 8) came from the direction of Turkey, flew over Cyprus and entered Israeli airspace over Tel Aviv.

From internet sites showing the aircraft’s flight path, it appears that instead of landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport, as other planes on this flight path do, it continued east to the Jordan Valley and from there flew south toward Eilat, slowing down and lowering altitude. The plane disappeared from the screen in the area of Hatzeva in the Arava Valley, a few dozen kilometers north of Uvda military airfield.

The plane remained on the ground for two to three hours each time before taking off again for Baku. It is not clear whether the plane unloaded cargo or loaded it.

The plane, which bears the registration number “4K-78131” on the side, has been owned by the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry since September 1, 2014, according to online databases. Before that, it had been owned for five years by the Azerbaijani cargo company SilkWay, one of the largest cargo companies in Central Asia, which specializes in flying heavy machinery and spare parts for oil rigs and vehicles.

Documents submitted to the United States authorities in 2007 in support of an application for a permit to operate in the U.S. state that SilkWay serves as a subcontractor for various defense ministries worldwide. In 2002, for example, it had won a contract from NATO and Germany's Defense Ministry to fly humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The documents show that the company has long-term contracts with defense ministries in Canada and France.

SilkWay operates a regular cargo line between the international airport at Baku and Ben-Gurion Airport, with two Boeing 747 transport planes landing at Ben-Gurion every week. Online data show that the two planes carried out about 18 flights in 2016 from Baku to Ben-Gurion Airport. It is unknown whether the planes loaded or unloaded cargo.

Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, Elin Suleymanov, told Haaretz that he was not aware of the flights to Israel of a cargo plane belonging to the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. Despite full diplomatic ties between Israel and Azerbaijan, the latter does not have an ambassador in Tel Aviv and Suleymanov is one of his government’s liaisons with Israel.

An ethnic Armenian soldier manning a position near the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Martuni on April 8.
Reuters

Suleymanov said he did not know what cargo SilkWay was carrying on its flights to Ben-Gurion, but added  that most of the flights to Israel were civilian. He said he did not think SilkWay served as a subcontractor for the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. The cargo transported by the company’s planes on behalf of NATO and other defense ministries consisted of humanitarian aid and not military equipment, he said.

Renewed fighting broke out between the Azerbaijan army and the forces of the Armenian separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in early April. This is one of the fiercest fighting cycles in the enclave since the war ended. Azerbaijan claimed that 12 Azeri soldiers and more than 100 Armenian soldiers were killed in the battles. The Armenian army said it had caused the Azeri army heavy losses, but did not cite figures.

The predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region comprises 20 percent of Azerbaijan. In 1991, after the Soviet Union's dismantling, the region declared its independence, which led to the bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over it. The war ended in 1994 with the victory of the Armenians, whose conquests enabled them to form a territorial continuity between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Suleymanov said the fighting was started by Armenia in an attempt to sabotage a visit to Washington by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

“All the fighting is on the territory of Azerbaijan,” Suleymanov told Haaretz. “The Armenian army is on our territory and it is an occupation army. They are trying to maintain the status quo and change the demographic makeup of the territory. There are no Azerbaijanis left there.”

A video from the area of the fighting showed an Israeli-made Harop “suicide” drone, which crashes into targets while loaded with explosives. A spokesman for the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said one of the drones crashed into a bus, killing seven “Armenian volunteers” who were on their way to the battle zone. 

Foreign media reported that in 2012 the Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $1.6 billion defense deal with Azerbaijan that included a drone supply.

The Armenian ambassador to Egypt, Armen Melkonian, who also serves as his country’s ambassador to Israel, came to Jerusalem last week. A senior official in Jerusalem said that Melkonian delivered an official protest to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem over the drone incident and the supply of weapons to the Azerbaijanis in general.

Suleymanov said that his country expected Israel to take a stronger public position in its support of Baku. He said that Azerbaijan was not protesting against the Israeli government, but delivering “a friendly reminder to all of our friends that we expect them to speak up for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.”

“We are grateful for Israel’s support, but we wanted to see stronger statements from the Israeli side in the latest round of clashes,” he added.

He said the allegations that the Azeri army had used Israeli drones in the last fighting phase had never been proved. “I cannot confirm or deny, but it was just an amateur comparison that someone made between photos and then came out with accusations,” Suleymanov said. 

Reports of Israeli sale of drones to Azerbaijan have raised criticism within Israel that weapons sales could be fuelling the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. “I don’t know if you can say that Israel was involved in the conflict,” Suleymanov said. “Defense cooperation is part of our relationship, but I am surprised by the exclusive focus on that issue and not the broader context of the relations," he added.