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CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have agreed to separate meetings with a delegation of leaders from six African countries to discuss a possible plan to end the war in Ukraine, South Africa’s president said Tuesday.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he spoke with Putin and Zelenskyy by phone over the weekend and they each agreed to host “an African leaders peace mission” in Moscow and Kyiv, respectively.
“Principal to our discussions are efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the devastating conflict in the Ukraine,” Ramaphosa said.
The leaders of Zambia, Senegal, Republic of Congo, Uganda and Egypt would make up the delegation along with Ramaphosa, he said in a statement. Putin and Zelenskyy gave him the go-ahead to “commence the preparations,” the South African leader said.
Four of those six African countries — South Africa, Republic of Congo, Senegal and Uganda — abstained from a U.N. vote last year on condemning Russia’s invasion. Zambia and Egypt voted in favor of the motion.
Ramaphosa did not give a time frame or outline any parameters for the possible peace talks. Zelenskyy has said he would not consider a peace deal to end the 15-month war until Russian forces withdraw completely from Ukrainian territory.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres also was briefed on the African delegation’s planned meetings and “welcomed the initiative,” Ramaphosa said.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric confirmed Monday that Ramaphosa spoke to Gutteres Monday afternoon during his visit to Jamaica.
“As we’ve said before, we are in favor of any initiative that could lead us to a peace in line with the (U.N.) Charter, in line with international law and in line with General Assembly resolutions,” Dujarric said.
The announcement of the African-led peace effort came as Russia launched a heavy air attack on Kyiv.
There was no immediate reaction Tuesday from either the Kremlin or Kyiv. A readout from a phone conversation Putin and Ramaphosa had Friday said the Russian leader supported “Cyril Ramaphosa’s idea about a group of African leaders participating in the discussion of the prospects of resolving the Ukrainian conflict.”
It wasn’t clear if that was the phone call Ramaphosa was referring to when he said he spoke with Putin over the weekend.
South Africa’s leading position in the African delegation is bound to draw scrutiny. Ramaphosa’s announcement came days after the U.S. ambassador accused South Africa of siding with Russia in the war in Ukraine and even providing weapons to help Moscow.
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety alleged last week that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto a Russian-flagged cargo ship at a South African naval base in December and taken to Russia. The South African government has denied it sent any weapons to Russia.
Ramaphosa has said the matter is under investigation.
South Africa has claimed its position on the war is neutral. The country has strong historical ties with Russia due to the former Soviet Union’s support of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party when it was a liberation movement fighting to end the racist apartheid regime.
South Africa also hosted Russian and Chinese warships for joint naval exercises off its coast in February and which coincided with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Africa’s top army general traveled to Moscow and met with the commander of the Russian ground forces on Monday.
South Africa maintains it also retains a strong relationship with the United States and other Western supporters of Ukraine. Ramaphosa met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House late last year.
Zambia also has historical ties with Russia. Uganda is a U.S. ally on regional security in East Africa, but Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has spoken of his country’s friendship with Russia and its neutral position in the war in Ukraine.
Sipho Mantula, an analyst at South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, said the neutrality of some of those African countries would help any talks.
“You don’t need people who will take sides and become proxy mediators,” Mantula said.
Russia and Ukraine are far apart in terms of an agreement to end the war.
The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, which most nations have denounced as illegal. Ukraine has rejected the demands and ruled out any talks with Russia until its troops pull back from all occupied territories.
Ukraine is determined to recover all Russian-occupied areas.
Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan also includes a tribunal to prosecute crimes of aggression, which would enable Russia to be held accountable for its invasion. Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, later saying he sought support for Ukraine’s peace plan from the pontiff.
China has been the only other country so far offering to mediate possible peace talks, an offer clouded by its show of political support for Moscow.
Beijing released a proposed peace plan in February, and a Chinese envoy is preparing to visit Russia and Ukraine.
But there appeared to be little chance of an imminent breakthrough to end the war since Ukraine and its Western allies largely dismissed the Beijing’s proposal.