South Africa rejects US accusations of shipping weapons to Russia

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African officials hit back on Friday at US accusations that a sanctioned Russian ship collected weapons from a naval base near Cape Town late last year, a move investors fear could prompt sanctions from Washington.

The US ambassador to South Africa said on Thursday he was confident a Russian ship loaded weapons from the Simontown base in December, suggesting the incident did not align with Pretoria’s position of neutrality in the Ukraine conflict.

Western diplomats have expressed concern about South Africa conducting naval exercises with Russia and China this year, and at the time of the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

South Africa is one of Russia’s most important allies on a continent divided over its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but says it is neutral and has abstained from voting on UN resolutions on the war.

On Friday, the Kremlin said, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict in Ukraine in a phone call with his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa’s office said on Thursday that an investigation, led by a retired judge, would look into the allegation. A minister responsible for arms control and a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Russia had not approved any arms shipment to Russia in December.

Communications Minister Mondeli Gongobili, who chaired the National Conventional Arms Control Commission (NCACC) when the alleged arms shipment to Russia was made: “We have not approved any weapons for Russia…,” he told 702 Radio.

South Africa’s Ministry of Defense said on Friday it would give its side of the story to the government’s investigation.

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Unsupported shipment?

Clayson Monyela, a spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), wrote on Twitter that his department would speak to US Ambassador Robin Brigetti and that Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor would speak to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken later in the day. .

Neither Jongobili nor Monyela said whether an unapproved shipment had left South Africa. Monyela did not respond to a request for comment.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined on Friday to delve into the specific allegations against South Africa, but reiterated the administration’s position on any country aiding Russia’s war effort.

Kirby said, “We have consistently and strongly urged countries not to provide any support for the Russian war. We don’t believe that anyone or anyone should make it easier for Mr. Putin to kill innocent Ukrainians, period.”

He declined to comment on the possibility that the shipment was a private transaction not approved by the South African government.

After leaving Simon’s Town, shipping data on Refinitiv shows the Lady R sailed north to Mozambique, spending January 7-11 in the port of Beira before continuing on to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Data shows that it arrived at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk on February 16.

The United States placed Lady R and Transmorflot LLC, its associated shipping company, under sanctions in May 2022 on the basis of the company’sMoves weapons About (the government of Russia).

Fear of penalties

Washington has warned that countries that provide material support to Russia may be denied access to US markets.

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Authorities in the opposition-run Western Cape province, a major center for exports and tourism, said they feared losing a market for commodities such as oranges, nuts and wine.

“Our ties with the United States are worth billions of rand,” said Provincial Finance Minister Mireille Wenger, echoing the concerns of the trade lobby group, Bosa. “It doesn’t make economic sense[to]… even think of jeopardizing the relationship.”

On a visit to South Africa in January, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said any violation of US sanctions against Russia would be dealt with “quickly and harshly”.

The fuss over the weapons has piled pressure on the rand currency, which is already weighed down by concerns about the energy crisis. It hit an all-time low early Friday before regaining steam.

Reporting by Cubano Gombe, Editing by Alexander Winning

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