US envoy says Russian ship picked up weapons in South Africa

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The United States envoy to South Africa said on Thursday he was confident that a Russian ship had picked up weapons in South Africa last year, in a possible breach of Pretoria’s declared neutrality in the Ukraine conflict.

The rand and South Africa’s 2030 government bond extended losses after the US assertion as currency traders said they were worried that South Africa could now face Western sanctions.

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The government is launching an independent inquiry led by a retired judge into the alleged arms shipment, the office of President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.

Earlier, Ramaphosa did not confirm or deny the shipment took place when an opposition leader asked him about it in parliament.

The US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, told local journalists in a briefing that Washington was confident a Russian vessel had uploaded weapons and ammunition from South Africa in December.

“Amongst the things we noted were the docking of the Russian cargo ship Lady R in Simon’s Town between December 6 and December 8, 2022, which we are confident uploaded weapons, ammunitions ... as it made its way back to Russia,” Brigety said.

“Arming of Russia by South Africa with the vessel… is fundamentally unacceptable,” Brigety said, adding that senior US officials had “profound concerns” about South Africa not respecting its professed policy of non-alignment and neutrality with regard to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

This “does not suggest to us the actions of a non-aligned country,” he said in a recording of the briefing heard by Reuters.

Washington has repeatedly warned countries against providing material support to Russia, cautioning that those who do may be denied access to the world’s most important markets.

The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The US Embassy in South Africa and the US Treasury Department declined to comment.

Brigety made the remarks to journalists following his return to Pretoria after accompanying a high-level South African delegation to the United States to address concerns about South Africa’s relationship with Russia.

South Africa’s presidency said that the issue of the alleged arms shipment had already been discussed with US officials who had agreed to let an investigation run its course, and that no evidence had yet been provided to support the US claims.

“The Ambassador’s remarks undermine the spirit of cooperation and partnership that characterized the recent engagements between US government officials and a South African official delegation,” the presidency said in its statement.

South Africa conducted joint naval exercises with Russia and China in February – calling it routine - which the US and other Western powers expressed concern about at the time.

Brigety said on Thursday that the naval drills and other issues, in addition to the arms shipment, had contributed to concerns about South Africa’s allegiance.

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

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