CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The U. S. ambassador to South Africa accused the country Thursday of providing weapons and ammunition to Russia for its war in Ukraine via a cargo ship linked to a sanctioned company that docked secretly at a naval base near the city of Cape Town in December.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said an investigation into the visit by a Russian vessel named Lady R to his nation’s main naval base was already underway behind the scenes with the help of U.S. intelligence services before Ambassador Reuben Brigety went public at a news conference in the South African capital, Pretoria, that the cargo was weapons and ammunition.
Brigety said the U.S. was certain that military equipment was loaded onto the Lady R at the Simon’s Town naval base between Dec. 6 and Dec. 8 and then transported to Russia. He said it brought into question South Africa’s supposed neutral stance on the war in Ukraine and its calls for the conflict to end.
“The arming of the Russians is extremely serious and we do not consider this issue to be resolved,” Brigety said in comments reported by multiple South African news outlets.
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If South Africa is found to be giving Russia military aid, it threatens to fracture the relationship between the United States and a key partner in Africa. Despite South Africa’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, the Biden Administration was hoping it could still be a key buffer against growing Russian and Chinese influence on the continent.
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While Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement later Thursday that there was currently “no evidence” to support allegations that arms were loaded onto the Lady R, The Associated Press established that the vessel is tied to a company that was sanctioned last year by the U.S. for being involved in transporting military equipment for the Russian government.
The news of Brigety’s comments broke while Ramaphosa was in Cape Town answering questions on other matters in Parliament. When the leader of the political opposition, John Steenhuisen, asked about the weapons and ammunition, the president replied that “the matter is being looked into, and in time we will be able to speak about it.”
Ramaphosa declined to comment further, citing the need for the investigation to play out.
Steenhuisen asked the president if South Africa was “actively arming Russian soldiers who are murdering and maiming innocent people?”
Ammunition supplies have become a problem for Russia in the war. The leader of Russian military company Wagner complained last week about his mercenary soldiers in Ukraine allegedly dealing with dire shortages.
Ramaphosa’s office acknowledged in its statement that the Lady R docked in South Africa, but did not say when, where or for what reason. The statement also criticized the American ambassador for going public.
Records reviewed by the AP show the Lady R was purchased by a Russian company, Transmorflot LLC, in 2019. In May 2022, the U.S. sanctioned Transmorflot and several vessels it alleges are controlled by the company, including the Lady R, for aiding the Russian war effort. The company then changed its name to MG-Flot LLC, which is also listed as the current owner of the Lady R.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that another ship owned by MG-Flot, the Rasul Gamzatov, transported artillery shells from Iran to Russia, citing Middle Eastern officials.
The AP has also independently confirmed that the Lady R docked at the Simon’s Town naval base during the time frame Brigety cited.
MarineTraffic, a service that collects radio and satellite transponder data from ships, tracked the Lady R off the South African coast in early December, but the signal was lost on Dec. 5. Ships are required by international law to keep their transponders on while at sea. Smugglers often turn them off to hide their movements.
Satellite imagery obtained by AP shows a ship the same length, color and layout as the Lady R docked at the naval base the following day and remained there through Dec. 8. AP also obtained photos of the ship at the naval base, the name Lady R clearly visible on its stern in both English and Russian. The ship set sail Dec. 9 and its transponder signal popped back up on Dec. 10. It returned to the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea on Feb. 22.
Steenhuisen’s opposition party had previously raised questions over the appearance of a “mystery” Russian vessel in Simon’s Town. In late December, South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise said the ship was handling an “old order” for ammunition, and arms were offloaded, not loaded onto the ship.
The South African government has stated numerous times it is neutral on the war in Ukraine and wants the conflict resolved peacefully through diplomacy but recent displays of its closeness to Russia opened Africa’s most developed country to accusations that it has effectively taken Russia’s side.
South Africa hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for talks in January, giving him a platform to blame the West for the war in Ukraine.
Weeks later, South Africa allowed warships from the Russian and Chinese navies to perform drills off its east coast. The Russian navy brought its Admiral Gorshkov frigate, one of its navy’s flagship vessels. The South African navy took part in the drills and said they would “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”
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South Africa also faces a diplomatic dilemma over a possible visit this year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the subject of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for alleged war crimes involving the abductions of children from Ukraine. Putin is due to visit South Africa in August for a meeting of leaders of the BRICS economic bloc, made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
South Africa is a signatory to the international court based in The Hague, Netherlands, and obliged to arrest Putin. The government indicated it would not detain the Russian leader and threatened to leave the ICC instead. Ramaphosa’s office released a statement last month backtracking on the threat.
—AP writer Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg contributed to this story. AP global investigative reporter Michael Biesecker reported from Washington.