A South African government investigation has determined that weapons were not loaded onto a Russian ship under American sanctions that docked near Cape Town last year, contradicting accusations by US officials that South Africa has provided weapons for the war in Ukraine, President Cyril Ramaphosa said. On Sunday.
“The panel found no evidence that any shipment of weapons was loaded for export on the ship, Lady R,” said Mr. Ramaphosa in a televised address, following an investigation commissioned by him and led by a retired judge.
Mr Ramaphosa said he would not release the full report to protect classified information, but a summary would be made public on Monday.
It remains to be seen whether the findings will ease relations between South Africa and the United States, which have reached their most tense period in years due in large part to the misunderstanding of what happened when Lady R , a commercial cargo ship, docked. at a South African naval base under the cover of night last December.
In May, the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben E. Brigety II, took the unusual step of publicly accusing South Africa of loading the Lady R with weapons, saying he would bet his life on it based on the intelligence he saw. . . That caused serious opposition in South Africa, where Mr. Brigety was summoned to meet with the foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, and, according to South African officials, to apologize for her public statement.
Since then, officials in each country have tried to mend the wounds, but threats that the United States could revoke South Africa’s trade privileges have lingered.
During the investigation in South Africa, the panel traveled to a naval base in Simon’s Town, interviewed more than 50 people and reviewed more than 100 documents, Mr. Ramaphosa said. The officials who made the claims were also invited to submit evidence, but they either did not appear or said they did not have personal information, Mr. Ramaphosa said in his address.
“None of the people who have made these allegations can provide any evidence to support the claims made against our country,” he said.
The accusations, the South African president said, have harmed the country’s economy and its standing in the world, and called into question the country’s position on the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Accompanied by Mr. Ramaphosa made his announcement in a speech on the success of the recent meeting of emerging nations held in Johannesburg, where leaders from Brazil, Russia, India and China, along with South Africa – a group known as BRICS – were reiterated a neutral stance on the war, while Russian President Vladimir V. Putin used his platform to rail against the West.
South African officials have embraced a sentiment — supported by Mr. Putin and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping — of creating a new world order that does not revolve around the West, an idea
South Africa’s decision to maintain warm ties with Russia, despite its aggression in Ukraine, has become a major sore spot for the United States and other Western allies. The close alliance dates back to the period when the Soviet Union supported the resistance to the apartheid regime of South Africa.
Since the Ukraine invasion, South African officials have said they maintain a neutral stance and want a peaceful resolution while refusing to pick sides in a conflict between superpowers.
But the United States and other Western countries have accused South Africa of failing to uphold its neutrality. In February, South Africa conducted naval drills with Russia and China. In May, it allowed a Russian cargo plane targeted by US sanctions to land at an air force base near the capital Pretoria. And last month, Mr. Ramaphosa warmly embraced Mr. Putin at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Mr. Ramaphosa is one of the most vocal supporters of Mr. Putin on his continent.
Beyond the allegations from the US ambassador, much of the suspicion surrounding the Lady R stems from the unusual circumstances surrounding the ship’s arrival on South African shores last year.
Windward, a company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze marine activity, analyzed the ship’s movements for The New York Times, and found that over the past decade, the Lady R has traveled almost exclusively in the same route between Novorossiysk, Russia, and China repeatedly.
But last October, the Lady R set sail on a route it had never traveled before that traveled across Africa, according to Dror Salzman, an analyst at Windward, which provides research to the United Nations. That new route is unusual, Mr. Salzman said, because ships usually change their routes drastically only when they have new owners or sail under new flags, either of which what happened to the Russian ship, owned by Transmorflot.
After making several stops, including ports in Togo and Cameroon, the ship landed in early December just outside South African territory, near Cape Agulhas at the southern tip of the continent. The transponder showing its location then went dark, according to Mr. Salzman, and did not return until four days later, near the same spot.
During those days while the transponder was off, residents in Simon’s Town, about 25 miles south of Cape Town and home to a South African naval base, reported seeing the ship docked there. Retired naval officers living in Simon’s Town and a resident said trucks carrying cargo to the ship stopped at a sports field hidden by trees instead of at the armory, as usual. happening Retired officials said they also found it suspicious that the ship was offloaded at night.
The Lady R left Simon’s Town on Dec. 9. It sailed along the east coast of Africa and, before landing in Mozambique, its transponder went off again for more than a day, Mr. Salzman said.
Thandi Modise, South Africa’s defense minister, said the Lady R was delivering an equipment order for South Africa’s defense forces that was placed in 2018-19 but that could not be delivered because of the pandemic. No weapons were loaded on the ship, he said.
John Eligon reported from Johannesburg, and Lynsey Chutel from Simon’s Town, South Africa.