South Africa rejects U.S. accusations of arms shipment to Russia
By Kopano Gumbi, Wendell Roelf and Daphne Psaledakis
JOHANNESBURG/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -South African officials on Friday hit back at U.S. accusations that a 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 Reuben Brigety said on Thursday he was confident that a Russian ship under U.S. sanctions took aboard weapons from the Simon's Town base in December, suggesting the transfer was not in line with Pretoria's stance of neutrality in Russia's war against Ukraine.
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 says it is impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday had discussed the conflict in Ukraine in a phone call with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the Kremlin said.
Ramaphosa's office said on Thursday that an inquiry led by a retired judge would look into the U.S. allegation. On Friday, a minister responsible for arms control and a foreign ministry spokesman said South Africa 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 when the purported shipment took place, told 702 radio.
He did not say whether or not an unapproved shipment had left South Africa.
South Africa's defence department said on Friday it would give its side of the story to the government's inquiry.
Brigety was summoned on Friday to meet South African foreign minister Naledi Pandor. The ministry "expressed the government's utter displeasure with his conduct and statements made yesterday," a statement said.
It said Brigety "admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly to the government and the people of South Africa."
Brigety said on Twitter: "I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor this evening and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks."
The U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a phone call with Pandor "and reiterated cooperation on shared priorities, including health, trade, and energy."
After leaving Simon's Town, Refinitiv shipping data showed 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.
It arrived in the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea on Feb. 16, the data showed.
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 the company "transports weapons for the (government of Russia)".
Washington has warned that countries providing material support to Russia may be denied access to U.S. markets.
"This is not just a verbal warning, this is something that the Biden administration has shown through its actions that it is willing to do, including by sanctioning companies in places like China and Turkey," said Edward Fishman, a foreign policy expert who worked on Russia sanctions during President Barack Obama's administration.
Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he thought it was unlikely that Washington would impose sanctions or suspend South Africa from AGOA, a major U.S. trade preference programme for Sub-Saharan Africa, although he said there were grounds to.
Authorities in South Africa's opposition-run Western Cape province said they feared losing a market for exports such as oranges, macademia nuts and wine.
The U.S. allegation over the weapons has heaped pressure on the rand currency, already weighed down by concerns over a power crisis. It struck an all-time low early on Friday before regaining some ground, but remained at its weakest in three years.
(Reporting by Kopano Gumbi, Carien du Plessis and Tim Cocks in Johannesburg, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town, and Joe Bavier, Daphne Psaledakis, Simon Lewis and Jarrett Renshaw in Washington; Writing by Nellie Peyton and Bhargav Acharya; Editing by Alexander Winning, Tim Cocks, Alex Richardson and Grant McCool)