The US ambassador to South Africa accused the country on Thursday of supplying Russia with arms and ammunition for its war in Ukraine via a cargo ship linked to a sanctioned company that secretly docked at a naval base near the city of Cape Town in December.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said an investigation into a visit by a Russian ship called the Lady R to his nation’s main naval base was already underway behind the scenes with the help of US intelligence services before Ambassador Reuben Brigety became public at a press conference in the southern African capital, Pretoria, that the cargo was weapons and ammunition.
Brigety said the US was certain the military equipment had been loaded onto the Lady R at Simon’s Town Naval Base between December 6 and 8 and then flown to Russia. He said he questioned South Africa’s supposedly neutral stance on the war in Ukraine and its calls for an end to the conflict.
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“The arming of the Russians is extremely serious and we do not believe this problem is solved,” Brigety said in comments reported by several South African news outlets.
If South Africa is found to be providing military aid to Russia, it threatens to strain the relationship between the United States and a key partner in Africa. Despite South Africa’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration hoped it could still be a key buffer against growing Russian and Chinese influence on the continent.
While Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement later Thursday that there was currently “no evidence” to support allegations that weapons were loaded on the Lady R, the Associated Press determined that the vessel is tied to a company that was fined last year by the United States for being involved in transporting military equipment for the Russian government.
News of Brigety’s comments came as Ramaphosa was in Cape Town answering questions on other issues in Parliament. When the leader of the political opposition, John Steenhuisen, asked about weapons and ammunition, the president replied that “the matter is under consideration and in time we will be able to talk about it”.
Ramaphosa declined to comment further, citing the need for an investigation to take place.
Steenhuisen asked the president if South Africa is “actively arming Russian soldiers who are killing and maiming innocent people.”
Ammunition supplies became a problem for Russia during the war. The leader of Russia’s Wagner military company complained last week that his mercenary soldiers in Ukraine were facing severe shortages.
Ramaphosa’s office acknowledged in its statement that the Lady R docked in South Africa, but did not say when, where or why. The statement also criticized the US ambassador for going public.
Records reviewed by The AP show the Lady R was purchased by a Russian company, Transmorflot LLC, in 2019. In May 2022, the United States sanctioned Transmorflot and several vessels it claims are controlled by the company, including the Lady R , for aiding the Russian War Effort. The company then changed its name to MG-Flot LLC, which is also listed as the current owner of the Lady R.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that another MG-Flot-owned vessel, the Rasul Gamzatov, carried artillery shells from Iran to Russia, citing Middle Eastern officials.
The AP also independently confirmed that the Lady R docked at Simon’s Town Naval Base during the time period Brigety cited.
MarineTraffic, a service that collects satellite and radio transponder data from ships, tracked the Lady R off the South African coast in early December, but the signal was lost on 5 December. sea. Smugglers often shut them down to hide their movements.
Satellite images obtained by the AP show a ship of the same length, color and layout as the Lady R docked at the naval base the following day and remained there until 8 December. The AP also obtained photos of the vessel at the naval base, the name Lady R clearly visible on the stern in both English and Russian. The vessel sailed on 9 December and her transponder signal re-emerged on 10 December. She returned to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk on 22 February.
Steenhuisen’s opposition party had previously raised questions about the appearance of a “mystery” Russian vessel in Simon’s Town. In late December, South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise said the vessel was running an “old order” of munitions and that the weapons were offloaded, not loaded onto the vessel.
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The South African government has declared numerous times that it is neutral on the war in Ukraine and that it wants to resolve the conflict peacefully through diplomacy, but recent demonstrations of sympathy for Russia have opened Africa’s most developed country to accusations that it has actually sided with Russia. of Russia.
South Africa hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in January, giving him a platform to blame the West for the war in Ukraine.
A few weeks later, South Africa allowed Russian and Chinese naval warships to conduct exercises off the east coast. The Russian Navy has brought its frigate Admiral Gorshkov, one of the flagships of its navy. The South African navy took part in the exercises and said it would “strengthen the already thriving relationship between South Africa, Russia and China”.
South Africa also faces a diplomatic dilemma over a possible visit this year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the subject of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for alleged war crimes involving the abduction of children from Ukraine. Putin is expected to visit South Africa in August for a meeting of the leaders of the BRICS economic bloc, made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
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South Africa is a signatory to the international tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands, and obligated to arrest Putin. The government indicated it would not arrest the Russian leader and instead threatened to quit the ICC. Ramaphosa’s office released a statement last month backing down on the threat.