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US: Lebanese man pleads guilty to buying drone parts for Hezbollah

Issam Hamade acquired sophisticated technology for drones and illegally exported them from US to Lebanese Shia group
Hamade faces as many as five years in prison at his sentencing next month, but prosecutors plan to ask for 30 months (AFP)

A Lebanese man has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate US export laws after he was charged with conspiring to export drone parts and technology to the armed group Hezbollah.

Issam Hamade pleaded guilty to the charge in a federal court in Minnesota on Monday. His brother, Usama Hamade, faces similar counts and is also charged with smuggling, while a third defendant, Samir Ahmed Berro, remains at large.

Prosecutors said the two brothers acquired sophisticated technology for drones from 2009 to 2013, and illegally exported it to Hezbollah.

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The three, including Berro, are believed to have obtained technical equipment for drones from several US companies, including goods from a Minnesota company that manufactures digital compasses.

Other parts that were obtained include inertial measurement units, which can be paired with digital compasses to make drone guidance systems, a jet engine and 20 piston engines, according to the indictment.

Issam's plea agreement, filed on Tuesday, admitted that he arranged the purchase of goods and technology from various countries, including the US, between 2009 and 2011.

The plea deal also added that Issam transferred money from Lebanon to accounts in South Africa, at his brother Usama's request, knowing the money would be used to buy drone parts.

Issam says he had reason to believe the drone parts would end up in Syria, in violation of US export laws.

'Gun-totting thug'

Prosecutors noted that Hezbollah has used drones for many years, and that by providing parts for drones, the brothers "present a danger to the United States, and to other communities around the world".

The prosecutors added that Usama is a "violent, drunken, gun-toting thug" who once threatened to kill a government witness and his family by cutting them "to pieces".

Issam faces up to five years in prison at his sentencing next month, but prosecutors plan to ask for 30 months, according to a plea agreement. 

The Lebanese national's defence team plans to ask the court for time served - the time Hamade spent in detention while awaiting trial. He is expected to be deported after serving his time.

Hamade's brother Usama faces similar charges, but has also been accused of smuggling.

The US designated Hezbollah, a Shia-dominated Lebanese armed group and political party backed by Iran, as a terrorist organisation in 1997.

Still, the group's leaders say it is a resistance movement that aims to protect Lebanon from Israel.