JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African officials hit back on Friday at US accusations that a Russian ship collected weapons from a naval base near Cape Town late last year, a move investors fear could prompt sanctions from Washington.
US Ambassador to South Africa Robin Brigetti said on Thursday he was confident a Russian ship under US sanctions removed weapons from the Simontown base in December, suggesting the transfer was inconsistent with Pretoria’s position of neutrality in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
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 South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa’s office said on Thursday that an investigation, led by a retired judge, would look into the US allegations. A minister responsible for arms control and a spokesperson for the Foreign Office said on Friday that South Africa had not approved any arms shipment to Russia in December.
“We did not agree to send any weapons to Russia… We did not approve or approve of it,” Communications Minister Mondeli Jongobili, who heads the National Commission for Conventional Arms Control, told Radio 702 when the alleged shipment was handed over.
He did not say whether or not an unapproved shipment had left South Africa.
South Africa’s Ministry of Defense said on Friday it would give its side of the story to the government’s investigation.
The ambassador listened
On Friday, Brigti was summoned to meet South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. A statement said the ministry “expressed the government’s utter dissatisfaction with his behavior and statements made yesterday.”
It said Brigti “admitted to having crossed the line and apologized unreservedly to the government and people of South Africa”.
“I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor this evening and to correct any wrong impressions left by my public remarks,” Brigetti said on Twitter.
The US State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a phone call with Pandor and “emphasized cooperation on shared priorities, including health, trade and energy.”
After leaving Simon’s Town, shipping data on Refinitiv showed the Lady R sailed north to Mozambique, spending January 7-11 in the port of Beira before continuing to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
The data showed 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.
said Edward Fishman, a foreign policy expert who worked on Russia sanctions during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he believes Washington is unlikely to sanction or suspend South Africa from AGOA, a major US trade preference program for sub-Saharan Africa, despite than he said there are reasons to.
Authorities in South Africa’s opposition-run Western Cape province said they fear losing a market for exports such as oranges, nuts and wine.
The US allegations over the weapons have added pressure to the rand currency, which is already weighed down by concerns about the energy crisis. It hit an all-time low early on Friday before regaining some ground, but remains at its weakest level in three years.
Reporting by Cubano Gombe, Editing by Alexander Winning
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