South Africa didn’t know a U.S.-sanctioned Russian ship carried its military purchases, inquiry finds

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South African officials did not know a sanctioned Russian ship was assigned to deliver military equipment to the country until the vessel was nearing national waters, according to an inquiry into an incident that caused diplomatic tensions between South Africa and the U.S.

U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety accused South Africa in May of having weapons intended for Russia loaded on to the Lady R when the container ship docked near Cape Town in December. The ship is under U.S. sanctions for ties to a company that transported arms for Russia’s war on Ukraine.

South Africa denied there was a government-approved deal to ship weapons to Russia from the country, which officially has taken a non-aligned stance on the Ukraine war. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed a three-person panel led by a retired judge to oversee an inquiry into the matter.

An executive summary of the panel’s report released Tuesday night stated that the ship offloaded military equipment but no weapons were loaded onto it. The panel also said that South African officials had no say in how the equipment ordered from the United Arab Emirates was shipped.

Ramaphosa made the summary public but has said the full report would remain classified. “To reveal the details of the equipment offloaded would compromise important military operations and put our soldiers’ lives at risk,” he said.

Brigety asserted during a May news conference that U.S. intelligence showed ammunition and weapons were put on the Lady R in South Africa and carried to Russia. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers subsequently asked the Biden administration to punish South Africa and questioned the country’s ability to receive trade benefits under a U.S. law, the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

The secretary-general of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party, Fikile Mbalula, last month openly questioned why Brigety remained in the country after allegedly “lying” about South Africa supplying Russia with weapons.

The panel’s findings elicited calls from several quarters, including the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party, for the ambassador to be expelled.

“We appreciate the seriousness with which the panel of inquiry undertook to investigate irregularities surrounding the Lady R’s presence in South Africa in December 2022,” David S. Feldmann, a spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, said Wednesday. “The U.S. government shared certain information pertaining to the Lady R and its presence in South Africa in support of the investigation.”

According to the inquiry report, the Russian ship was redirected to the Simon’s Town naval base after shipping agents at the Ngqura-Port Elizabeth port, where it intended to dock, refused to service the ship due to the U.S. sanctions.

“This only became apparent as the ship was already approaching South African waters,” the panel found, adding that the ship was redirected “to rescue the situation.”

The investigating panel accepted the nighttime work to offload the military equipment, saying it was loaded on pallets and would be visible to anybody within site of the Simon’s Town dock. The vessel switched off its identification transponder because it was being tracked by foreign intelligence agencies, the panel said, without naming those agencies.

The panel also concluded that the U.S. sanctions were not binding on South Africa because United Nations had not endorsed them.

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