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CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — The U. S. ambassador to South Africa accused the country Thursday of providing weapons and ammunition to Russia for its war in Ukraine via a cargo ship that docked secretly at a naval base near the city of Cape Town for three days in December. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said an investigation was underway.
Ambassador Reuben Brigety said the U.S. was certain the equipment was loaded onto the Russian vessel at the Simon’s Town naval base and then transported to Russia, according to reports of his comments carried by multiple South African news outlets.
Ramaphosa was in Cape Town answering questions in Parliament when news of Brigety’s comments broke. When a lawmaker asked about the weapons and ammunition, the president replied that “the matter is being looked into, and in time we will be able to speak about it.”
Ramaphosa declined to comment further, citing the need for an investigation to play out.
The leader of the political opposition, John Steenhuisen, asked the president if South Africa was “actively arming Russian soldiers who are murdering and maiming innocent people?” Steenhuisen also asked if Ramaphosa could confirm that “weapons of war” were loaded onto the Russian ship.
Ammunition supplies have become a problem for Russia in the war. The leader of Russian military company Wagner complained last week about his mercenary soldiers in Ukraine allegedly dealing with dire shortages.
In a statement issued later Thursday, Ramaphosa’s office acknowledged a Russian ship named the Lady R docked in South Africa, but the office did not say where or what the purpose of the stop was.
The statement criticized the American ambassador for going public and said there was an agreement that U.S. intelligence services would provide whatever evidence they have to aid South Africa’s investigation.
The Lady R and a Russian company tied to it, Transmorflot LLC, were sanctioned by the U.S. last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for being involved in the transportation of military equipment and weapons.
Brigety said earlier Thursday that South Africa’s alleged arming of Russia during its invasion of Ukraine was “extremely serious” and called into question South Africa’s supposed neutral stance.
“Among the things we (the U.S.) noted was the docking of the cargo ship in the Simon’s Town naval base between the 6th and 8th December 2022, which we are confident uploaded weapons and ammunition onto that vessel in Simon’s Town as it made its way back to Russia,” Brigety was quoted as saying at a press conference in the South African capital, Pretoria.
South Africa’s neutral stance under fire
The Associated Press has independently confirmed that the Lady R docked at the Simon’s Town naval base during the time frame Brigety cited.
MarineTraffic, a service that collects radio and satellite transponder data from ships, tracked the Lady R off the South African coast in early December, but the signal was lost on Dec. 5. Ships are required by international law to keep their transponders on while at sea. Smugglers often turn them off to hide their movements.
Satellite imagery obtained by the AP shows a ship the same length, color and layout as the Lady R docked at the naval base the following day and remaining there through Dec. 8. The AP also obtained photos of the ship at the naval base, the name Lady R clearly visible on its stern in both English and Russian.
The ship set sail Dec. 9 and its transponder signal popped back up on Dec. 10. It returned to the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea on Feb. 22.
Steenhuisen’s opposition party had previously raised questions over the appearance of a “mystery” Russian vessel in Simon’s Town. In late December, South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise said the ship was handling an “old order” for ammunition, and that arms were offloaded, not loaded onto the ship.
The South African government, a key partner for the U.S. in Africa, has stated numerous times it has a neutral position on the war in Ukraine and wants the conflict resolved peacefully.
But recent displays of its closeness to Russia opened Africa’s most developed country to accusations that it has effectively taken Russia’s side.
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.
Weeks later, South Africa allowed warships from the Russian and Chinese navies to perform drills off its east coast. The Russian navy brought its Admiral Gorshkov frigate, one of its navy’s flagship vessels, and the exercises strained South Africa’s relationship with the U.S. and other Western allies.
The South African navy also took part in the drills and characterized them as exercises that would “strengthen the already flourishing relations 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 abductions of children from Ukraine.
Putin is due to visit South Africa in August for a meeting of leaders of the BRICS economic bloc, which is made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
South Africa is a signatory to the international war crimes court and obliged to arrest Putin. The government indicated it would not detain the Russian leader and threatened to leave the ICC instead, but Ramaphosa’s office released a statement last month backtracking on the threat.