Armenia's Government: Almost All of Nagorno-Karabakh's People Have Left

Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh travel in a car loaded with their belongings on the road between Goris and Yerevan on September 30, 2023. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo / AFP)
Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh travel in a car loaded with their belongings on the road between Goris and Yerevan on September 30, 2023. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo / AFP)
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Armenia's Government: Almost All of Nagorno-Karabakh's People Have Left

Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh travel in a car loaded with their belongings on the road between Goris and Yerevan on September 30, 2023. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo / AFP)
Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh travel in a car loaded with their belongings on the road between Goris and Yerevan on September 30, 2023. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo / AFP)

An ethnic Armenian exodus has nearly emptied Nagorno-Karabakh of residents since Azerbaijan attacked and ordered the breakaway region’s militants to disarm, the Armenian government said Saturday.

Nazeli Baghdasaryan, the press secretary to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said 100,417 people had arrived in Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh, which had a population of around 120,000 before Azerbaijan reclaimed the region in a lightning offensive last week.

A total of 21,043 vehicles had crossed the Hakari Bridge, which links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, since last week, Baghdasaryan said. Some lined up for days because the winding mountain road that is the only route to Armenia became jammed.

The departure of more than 80% of Nagorno-Karabakh's population raises questions about Azerbaijan’s plans for the enclave that was internationally recognized as part of its territory. The region's separatist ethnic Armenian government said Thursday it would dissolve itself by the end of the year after a three-decade bid for independence.

Pashinyan has alleged the ethnic Armenian exodus amounted to “a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland.” Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry strongly rejected the characterization, saying the mass migration by the region's residents was “their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation.”

In a related development, Azerbaijani authorities on Friday arrested the former foreign minister of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government, presidential advisor David Babayan, Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General’s Office said Saturday.

Babayan's arrest follows the Azerbaijani border guard's detention of the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government, State Minister Ruben Vardanyan, as he tried to cross into Armenia on Wednesday.

The arrests appear to reflect Azerbaijan’s intention to quickly enforce its grip on the region after the military offensive.



British Union of Journalists Condemns Iran for Trials against Journalists in Absentia

Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)
Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)
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British Union of Journalists Condemns Iran for Trials against Journalists in Absentia

Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)
Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad. (BBC)

Britain’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) demanded on Friday action against Iran after documents revealed secret trials of journalists working for Persian language media abroad.

In a statement, NUJ said Iran has sentenced ten journalists affiliated with BBC Persian in London, along with others associated with Iran International, Manoto TV, Gem TV, Voice of America, and Prague-based Radio Farda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).

“Journalists were tried and convicted in absentia, and no one was even aware that the secret proceedings had taken place,” the Union noted.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “This is yet more evidence of the all-out war on Iranian journalists inside the country and abroad by the Iranian government.”

She said it was deeply shocking that a state can act in this abhorrent way, putting journalists and their families in real danger in a flagrant abuse of press freedom.

Stanistreet affirmed that the Union we will be contacting the UK’s government and the UN and “ask that the wider international community speak out against this outrageous weaponizing of journalists.”

“Particularly worrying is the use by the regime of red notices through Interpol which can inhibit the movement of these journalists, as they travel abroad for work or to meet with family in third countries,” she added.

The secret trials were revealed after the hacking group, Edalat-e Ali, published a database of Tehran Judiciary's criminal cases, which includes some details of three million public and secret cases.

None of those “convicted” journalists knew about this case until the documents were hacked and published which showed they were tried in absentia, without legal representation or access to the indictment, according to NUJ.

Earlier this week, on the eve of the launch of campaigning for Iran’s legislative elections, hackers from Edalat-e Ali announced they confiscated millions of files and documents after breaching the servers of the Iranian judiciary.

Weeks prior, the group had hacked the website of the Iranian parliament.

Edalat-e Ali had previously hacked the surveillance cameras of Iranian prisons, as well as government websites, including the website of the Iranian President.


Ukraine Marks Two Years since Russia's Full-scale Invasion as Troops Face Challenges on Front Line

Ukrainian servicemen operate a German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun Gepard near the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, Ukraine, 22 February 2024 amid the Russian invasion. EPA/IGOR TKACHENKO
Ukrainian servicemen operate a German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun Gepard near the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, Ukraine, 22 February 2024 amid the Russian invasion. EPA/IGOR TKACHENKO
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Ukraine Marks Two Years since Russia's Full-scale Invasion as Troops Face Challenges on Front Line

Ukrainian servicemen operate a German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun Gepard near the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, Ukraine, 22 February 2024 amid the Russian invasion. EPA/IGOR TKACHENKO
Ukrainian servicemen operate a German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun Gepard near the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, Ukraine, 22 February 2024 amid the Russian invasion. EPA/IGOR TKACHENKO

Ukraine is marking Saturday two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion, with a string of foreign dignitaries and officials expected to visit the capital, Kyiv, in solidarity as Ukrainian forces run low on ammunition and weaponry and Western aid hangs in the balance.
A somber mood hangs over the country as the war against Russia enters its third year, and Kyiv's troops face mounting challenges on the front line amid dwindling ammunition supplies and personnel challenges, and having withdrawn from a strategic eastern city that handed Moscow one of its biggest victories, The Associated Press said.
The anniversary comes after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sacked top military commander Valerii Zaluzhnyi, replacing him with Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, marking the most significant shakeup of top brass since the full-scale invasion.
Russia still controls roughly a quarter of the country after Ukraine failed to meet expectations with its summer-time counteroffensive not producing major breakthroughs. Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians continue to live under precarious circumstances in the crossfire of battles, and many others face constant struggles under Russian occupation. Most are still waiting for a Ukrainian liberation that hasn't come.
Foreign officials are expected to descend on the capital to meet with Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials and express their continued support for the country as it fights Moscow's troops and prepares for European Union membership.
In the US Congress, Republicans have stalled $60 billion in military aid for Kyiv, desperately needed in the short term. The EU recently approved a 50 billion euro (about $54 billion) aid package for Ukraine, despite resistance from Hungary, meant to support Ukraine's economy.
US President Joe Biden tied the loss of the defensive stronghold of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region after months of grueling battles to the stalled US aid. Fears have since spiked that Ukrainian forces would face similar difficulties across other parts of the 1000-kilometer (620-mile) front line as they come under mounting pressure from Russian assaults.


Iran Denies Providing Ballistic Missiles to Russia

Iranian ballistic missiles are displayed during the ceremony of joining the Armed Forces, in Tehran, Iran, August 22, 2023. Iran's Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via Reuters
Iranian ballistic missiles are displayed during the ceremony of joining the Armed Forces, in Tehran, Iran, August 22, 2023. Iran's Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via Reuters
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Iran Denies Providing Ballistic Missiles to Russia

Iranian ballistic missiles are displayed during the ceremony of joining the Armed Forces, in Tehran, Iran, August 22, 2023. Iran's Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via Reuters
Iranian ballistic missiles are displayed during the ceremony of joining the Armed Forces, in Tehran, Iran, August 22, 2023. Iran's Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via Reuters

Iran denied on Friday that it had provided ballistic missiles to Russia, after the United States said there would be a severe international response to any such move.

Earlier this week Reuters, citing six sources, reported that Iran had provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic weapons to Russia, deepening military cooperation between the two US-sanctioned nations.

The Biden administration warned Iran on Thursday of a "swift and severe" response from the international community if Tehran had provided ballistic missiles to Russia.

"Despite no legal restrictions on ballistic missile sales, Iran is morally obligated to refrain from weapon transactions during the Russia-Ukraine conflict to prevent fueling the war," Iran's mission to the United Nations said on the X platform.

"(That) is rooted in Iran's adherence to international law and the UN Charter," it added.

UN Security Council restrictions on Iran's export of some missiles, drones and other technologies expired in October.

However, the United States and the European Union retained sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program amid concerns over exports of weapons to its proxies in the Middle East and to Russia.

Iran initially denied supplying drones to Russia but months later said it had provided a small number before Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.


Somalia Will Defend Itself if Ethiopia Seals ‘Illegal’ Port Deal, President Says 

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
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Somalia Will Defend Itself if Ethiopia Seals ‘Illegal’ Port Deal, President Says 

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses the media inside his office in Mogadishu, Somalia February 21, 2024. (Reuters)

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said his country would "defend itself" if Ethiopia goes ahead with a deal to set up a naval base in the breakaway region of Somaliland and possibly recognize the territory as an independent state.

Landlocked Ethiopia agreed a memorandum of understanding on Jan. 1 to lease 20 km (12 miles) of coastline in Somaliland - a territory that Somalia says it owns, even though the northern region has enjoyed effective autonomy since 1991.

Ethiopia said it wants to set up a naval base there and offered possible recognition of Somaliland in exchange - prompting a defiant response from Somalia and fears the deal could further destabilize the Horn of Africa.

"If Ethiopia insists, Somalia will resist and will refuse," Mohamud told Reuters on Tuesday in an interview at the heavily fortified presidential palace in Mogadishu.

"If they come into the country, Somalia will do everything that it can to defend itself."

He did not go into further detail on what action Somalia might take. The Horn of Africa has experienced repeated conflicts, feeding humanitarian crises in areas prone to drought. Neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia fought over territory in 1977-1978 and 1982.

Mohamud said he would only agree to discuss the matter with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed when the government in Addis Ababa renounces its intention "to take part of our country".

Ethiopia's government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Abiy has previously said Ethiopia has no plans to start a conflict with Somalia and is merely trying to address its need for sea access.

Mohamud said he was not considering kicking out the nearly 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers stationed in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission fighting militants from al Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Analysts and diplomats fear a withdrawal of Ethiopian troops would further destabilize Somalia, where al Shabaab attacks have killed thousands of civilians and soldiers since 2006.

Somalia and several Western countries, including the United States, which regularly carries out strikes against militants in Somalia, have said Ethiopia's port deal has boosted al Shabaab's recruitment efforts.

Mohamud said his government's estimates showed al Shabaab had recruited between 6,000 and 8,000 new fighters in January alone.

Analysts and diplomats interviewed by Reuters were skeptical of that number, estimating the number of new recruits in the hundreds.


British-born Woman who Joined ISIS Loses Appeal over Citizenship Removal

(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)
(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)
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British-born Woman who Joined ISIS Loses Appeal over Citizenship Removal

(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)
(FILES) Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (Photo by LAURA LEAN / POOL / AFP)

A British-born woman who went to Syria as a schoolgirl to join ISIS lost her latest appeal on Friday over the removal of her British citizenship.
The British government took away Shamima Begum's citizenship on national security grounds in 2019, shortly after she was found in a detention camp in Syria.
Begum, now 24, argued the decision was unlawful, in part because British officials failed to properly consider whether she was a victim of trafficking, an argument that was rejected by a lower court in February 2023.
The Court of Appeal in London rejected her appeal on Friday following an appeal in October.
Judge Sue Carr said: "It could be argued that the decision in Ms. Begum's case was harsh. It could also be argued that Ms. Begum is the author of her own misfortune.
"But it is not for this court to agree or disagree with either point of view. Our only task is to assess whether the deprivation decision was unlawful.
"We have concluded it was not and the appeal is dismissed."


Putin Says 95% of Russia’s Nuclear Forces Have Been Modernized 

In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)
In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)
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Putin Says 95% of Russia’s Nuclear Forces Have Been Modernized 

In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)
In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik late on February 22, 2024, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Kremlin in Moscow. (AFP)

President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that 95% of Russia's strategic nuclear forces had been modernized and that the Air Force had just taken delivery of four new supersonic nuclear-capable bombers.

Putin made the comments in a statement released to coincide with Russia's annual Defender of the Fatherland Day, which celebrates the army, a day after he flew on a modernized Tu-160M nuclear-capable strategic bomber.

The Russian leader praised soldiers fighting in Ukraine in what he called a "special military operation", hailing them as heroes battling for "truth and justice."

But he devoted much of his speech to what he said were the achievements of the military-industrial complex.

His message: that Russia's nuclear triad - its strategic land, sea and air nuclear capabilities - were up to date, being constantly modernized, and in good order.

"Incorporating our real combat experience, we will continue to strengthen the Armed Forces in every possible way, including ongoing re-equipping and modernization efforts," Putin said.

"Today, the share of modern weapons and equipment in the strategic nuclear forces has already reached 95 percent, while the naval component of the 'nuclear triad' is at almost 100 percent," he added.


Armenia Freezes Participation in Russia-Led Security Bloc 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
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Armenia Freezes Participation in Russia-Led Security Bloc 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a joint press conference with French president (not seen) as part of a meeting on the sidelines of ceremony to admit Missak Manouchian and his resistance comrades to the Pantheon, in Paris, France, 21 February 2024. (EPA)

Armenia has frozen its participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) because the pact had failed the country, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview broadcast on Thursday.

Pashinyan also said Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has fought two wars over the past three decades, was not adhering to the principles needed to clinch a long-term peace treaty, and suggested Azerbaijan was preparing to launch another attack.

Pashinyan told France 24 television that the CSTO pact, dominated by Russia, had failed Armenia.

"The Collective Security Treaty has not fulfilled its objectives as far as Armenia is concerned, particularly in 2021 and 2022. And we could not let that happen without taking notice," Pashinyan said through an interpreter.

"We have now in practical terms frozen our participation in this treaty. As for what comes next, we shall have to see."

He said there was no discussion for the moment of closing a Russian base in Armenia. That was subject to different treaties.

Pashinyan has in recent months expressed discontent with Armenia's longstanding ties with Russia and said Armenia could no longer rely on Russia to ensure its defense needs. He had suggested its membership of the CSTO was under review.

Other ex-Soviet members of the CSTO include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Azerbaijan recovered swathes of territory in 2020 in the second war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Last year, Azerbaijan's military took control of the territory, prompting most of its residents to leave for Armenia.

In his remarks, Pashinyan said prospects for clinching a long-term peace treaty were hurt by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's statements which Armenia interpreted as laying claim to large parts of Armenian territory.

"If the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders are not recognized by Azerbaijan, it is simply not possible," he told France 24.

"Azerbaijan is using the situation to feed its rhetoric. That leads one to think that Azerbaijan is getting ready for a new attack on Armenia."

Key elements in securing a treaty are demarcation of borders and the establishment of regional transport corridors often through the territory of each others' territory.

Aliyev has also raised the issue of determining control of ethnic enclaves on both sides of the border.

Pashinyan and Aliyev have discussed moves towards a peace treaty at several meetings, including discussions last week at the Munich Security Conference.


Russian Drone Strike on Ukrainian Regions Kills Four, Kyiv Says 

Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)
Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)
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Russian Drone Strike on Ukrainian Regions Kills Four, Kyiv Says 

Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)
Firefighters work at a site of Russian drone and missile strikes, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine February 23, 2024. (Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Odesa region/Handout via Reuters)

Russian drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian regions in the south and east killed four people overnight and damaged residential and commercial buildings, officials said on Friday. 

Ukrainian air defenses shot down 23 out of 31 Russian-launched drones over five regions, the air force said. 

"Another difficult night for Ukrainians. The enemy launched three dozen Shaheds and six missiles at peaceful settlements of the country," said Oleksiy Kuleba, deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office. 

The attacks killed four people and wounded nine others, Kuleba said. 

Three people were killed in the Black Sea port of Odesa when a Russian drone hit a commercial area, causing a blaze, regional governor Oleh Kiper said. 

In an attack on the Donetsk region near the front lines, one civilian was killed in the town of Myrnohrad, and 21 houses, a school, and a multi-story residential building were damaged, Kuleba said. 

In a post on Telegram, the military's Southern Forces said they had intercepted nine drones in the Odesa region. 

The military said missiles were also used in the attacks, but failed to hit any targets. 

Pictures posted by the military showed heavy damage to buildings in the area and rescue teams picking their way through debris. 

As the war enters its third year, Russia has intensified its bombardments of Ukrainian ports, including Odesa, and grain infrastructure in recent months after Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a wartime deal that enabled Ukraine’s exports to reach many countries facing the threat of hunger. 

Kyiv has since set up an alternative corridor to ship grain and other products via its Black Sea ports near Odesa.  

In the city of Dnipro in the southeast, a Russian drone hit an apartment building, injuring at least eight people and damaging the two top floors. Serhiy Lysak, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, wrote on Telegram that the search ran through the night and other residents might still be under the rubble. 


Israeli Defense Firms Make Air Show Return, Tight-lipped on Gaza War

Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)
Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)
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Israeli Defense Firms Make Air Show Return, Tight-lipped on Gaza War

Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)
Guests stand next to the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems booth at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 21, 2024. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

Israel's military industry was out in force at the Singapore Airshow this week, making its return after being largely absent from the Dubai air show in November in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, a subject that was off limits at the Asia summit.
The Israeli ministry of defense and 11 of its defense contractors attended Asia's largest aerospace and defense gathering, including Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems.
IAI, Rafael, Elbit and the defense ministry all declined to comment on the war in Gaza, including the performance of their own weapons.
"We don't discuss weapons," Ziv Avni, vice president of business development at Elbit, told Reuters at the unveiling of its latest aerial drone, which a placard said could carry "loitering munitions for covert and precise airstrikes".
Israel has faced criticism and protests over its months-long military campaign in Gaza, which the health ministry there says has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians.
Israel began its military offensive in Gaza after fighters from Hamas-ruled Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel on Oct. 7.
The war wasn't brought up by delegates at the Singapore event and didn't dampen appetite for Israel's missiles, spy gear and aerial drones, two Israeli industry officials at the show told Reuters, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.


US: 4 Charged in Transporting Suspected Iranian-made Weapons to Houthis

This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)
This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)
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US: 4 Charged in Transporting Suspected Iranian-made Weapons to Houthis

This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)
This image released by the US Department of Justice in an FBI affidavit filed in US District Court, Alexandria, Va., shows what is described as Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthis seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Department of Justice via AP, File)

Four foreign nationals were arrested and charged Thursday with transporting suspected Iranian-made weapons on a vessel intercepted by US naval forces in the Arabian Sea last month. Two Navy SEALs died during the mission.

The criminal complaint unsealed Thursday in US District Court in Richmond alleges that the four defendants — who were all carrying Pakistani identification cards — were transporting suspected Iranian-made missile components for the type of weapons used by the Houthis in Yemen in recent attacks.

The flow of missiles and other advanced weaponry from Iran to Houthi militias in Yemen “threatens the people and interests of America and our partners in the region,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a news release.

US officials said that Navy Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Christopher J. Chambers was boarding the boat on Jan. 11 and slipped into the gap created by high waves between the vessel and the SEALs’ combatant craft. As Chambers fell, Navy Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Nathan Gage Ingram jumped in to try to save him, according to US officials familiar with what happened.

“Two Navy SEALs tragically lost their lives in the operation that thwarted the defendants charged today from allegedly smuggling Iranian-made weapons that the Houthis could have used to target American forces and threaten freedom of navigation and a vital artery for commerce," Monaco said.
According to The Associated Press, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland pledged that the Justice Department “will use every legal authority to hold accountable those who facilitate the flow of weapons” from Iran to the Houthis, Hamas, and other groups “that endanger the security of the United States and our allies.”

Muhammad Pahlawan is charged with attempting to smuggle advanced missile components, including a warhead he is accused of knowing would be used by the Houthis against commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea and surrounding waters. He is also charged with providing false information to US Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the vessel.

Pahlawan's co-defendants — Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah and Izhar Muhammad — were also charged with providing false information.

Pahlawan's attorney, Assistant Supervisory Federal Public Defender Amy Austin, said Pahlawan had an initial appearance in US District Court Thursday and is scheduled to be back in court Tuesday for a detention hearing. She declined to comment on the case.

“Right now, he’s just charged with two crimes and we’re just at the very beginning stages, and so all we know is what’s in the complaint,” Austin said when reached by phone Thursday.

According to prosecutors, Navy forces boarded a small, unflagged vessel, described as a dhow, and encountered 14 people on the ship on the night of Jan. 11, in the Arabian Sea off the Somali coast.

Navy forces searched the dhow and found what prosecutors say was Iranian-made weapons, including components for medium range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.

All 14 sailors on the dhow were brought onto the USS Lewis B. Puller after Navy forces determined the dhow was not seaworthy. They were then brought back to Virginia, where criminal charges were filed against four and material witness warrants were filed against the other 10.

According to an FBI affidavit, Navy forces were entitled to board the ship because they were conducting an authorized “flag verification” to determine the country where the dhow was registered.

The dhow was determined to be flying without a flag and was therefore deemed a “vessel without nationality” that was subject to US law, the affidavit states.

According to the affidavit, the sailors on the dhow admitted they had departed from Iran, although at least one of the men initially insisted they departed from Pakistan.

The affidavit states that crew members had been in contact multiple times by satellite phone with a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.