South African military commander in Moscow for talks: Russian media

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The commander of South Africa’s ground forces is in Moscow for talks, Russian news agencies said Monday, days after Washington accused Pretoria of secretly providing arms to Russia.

Lieutenant General Lawrence Mbatha is heading a delegation that discussed “issues relating to military cooperation and interaction” with their Russian counterparts, the agencies said, citing the Russian defense ministry.

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Last Thursday the US ambassador to Pretoria Reuben Brigety said that the United States believed weapons and ammunition had been laden onto a Russian freighter that docked at a Cape Town naval base in December.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the matter was “being looked into” and “in time we will be able to speak about it.”

The US welcomed the promises to probe the allegations.

South Africa has refused to condemn the conflict in Ukraine, which has largely isolated Moscow on the international stage.

The country -- an African powerhouse that also wields moral clout for its victory over apartheid -- says it wants to stay neutral.

But critics cite a number of recent incidents as evidence of a tilt towards the Kremlin.

On Friday, following the scandal, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Ramaphosa.

Both leaders agreed to “intensify mutually beneficial ties” according to the Kremlin.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday said the country would not be drawn “into a contest between global powers” over Ukraine despite having faced “extraordinary pressure” to pick sides.

“We do not accept that our non-aligned position favors Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries,” Ramaphosa said in a weekly presidential newsletter.

Pretoria supported a peaceful resolution to the conflict, he said.

On Monday, Mbatha “visited educational institution of the ground forces and enterprises of the military-industrial complex” of Russia, agencies said.

“Agreements were reached to further increase cooperation between ground forces in various fields,” Russian agency Interfax said.

A spokesman for South Africa defense ministry referred questions about Mbatha’s trip to Moscow to the military.

The South African Defense Force (SANDF) did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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