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South Africa rejects U.S. accusations of arms shipment to Russia

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SOUTH African officials hit back at U.S. accusations that a sanctioned Russian ship had collected weapons from a naval base near Cape Town late last year, a move investors fear could lead Washington to impose sanctions.

The U.S. ambassador to South Africa said on Thursday he was confident that a Russian ship uploaded weapons from the Simon’s Town base in December, suggesting the incident was not in line with Pretoria’s stance of neutrality in the Ukraine conflict.

Western diplomats were alarmed at South Africa carrying out naval exercises with Russia and China this year and at the timing of a visit by 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 it says it is impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on the war.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday had discussed the conflict in Ukraine in a phone call with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa, the Kremlin said.

Ramaphosa’s office said on Thursday that an inquiry led by a retired judge would look into the allegation. On Friday, a minister responsible for arms control and a foreign ministry spokesman said the country had not approved any arms shipment to Russia in December.

“We didn’t approve any arms to Russia, … it wasn’t sanctioned or approved by us,” Communications Minister Mondli Gungubele, who chaired the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) when the alleged arms shipment to Russia took place, told 702 radio.

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South Africa’s defence department said on Friday it would give its side of the story to the government’s inquiry.

UNAPPROVED SHIPMENT?

Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa’s Department of international relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), wrote on Twitter that his department would speak to U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety and that Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor would talk to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later in the day.

Neither Gungubele nor Monyela said whether or not an unapproved shipment had left South Africa. Monyela did not respond to a request for comment.

On Friday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to get into the specific allegations against South Africa but reiterated the administration’s position about any country aiding the Russian war effort.

“We have consistently and strongly urged countries not to provide any support for Russia’s war. We don’t believe that anybody, anybody should be making it easier for Mr Putin to kill innocent Ukrainian people, period,” Kirby said.

He declined to comment on the possibility that the shipment was a private transaction and not approved by the South African government.

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After leaving Simon’s Town, Refinitiv shipping data show the vessel, the “Lady R”, sailed north to Mozambique, spending Jan. 7 to 11 in the port of Beira before continuing to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

The data show it arrived in the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea on Feb. 16.

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The United States placed the Lady R and Transmorflot LLC, the shipping company it is linked to, under sanctions in May 2022 on the grounds that the company “transports weapons for the (government of Russia)”.

SANCTIONS FEAR

Washington has warned that countries providing material support to Russia may be denied access to U.S. markets.

Authorities in the opposition-run Western Cape, a major hub for exports and tourism, said they feared losing a market for commodities such as oranges, macadamia nuts and wine.

“Our links with the U.S. generate billions (of rand),” the province’s finance minister Mireille Wenger said, echoing fears from business lobby group, Busa. “It makes zero economic sense (to) … even consider putting the relationship at risk”.

On a visit to South Africa in January, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that any violation of the U.S. sanctions on Russia would be dealt with “quickly and harshly”.

The furore over the arms has heaped pressure on the rand currency, already being weighed down by concerns over a power crisis. It struck an all-time low early on Friday before regaining ground.

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By KOPANO GUMBI and WENDELL ROELF

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