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South Africa expresses 'utter displeasure' at U.S. accusations of arms shipment to Russia

U.S. Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety, on Thursday, accused South Africa of secretly loading weapons onto a sanctioned Russian cargo ship last year.
Reuben Brigety, speaks to journalists in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2010.Khalil Senosi / AP

South Africa’s foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to a meeting Friday to express its “utter displeasure” over allegations he made that the country had supplied Russia for its war against Ukraine. 

Reuben Brigety’s comments were “puzzling and at odds with the mutually beneficial and cordial relationship that exists between the United States of America and South Africa,” South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation said in statement posted to Facebook.

Using a diplomatic term referring to a formal complaint, it added that it had Brigety, who has served as ambassador since last year, had been “demarched.”

The ministry did not directly deny Brigety’s claim in a briefing to local journalists on Thursday, that Washington was “confident” the Russian cargo vessel Lady R. had uploaded weapons and ammunition from South Africa in December.

Calling it “fundamentally unacceptable,” Brigety said he “would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.”

The Lady R. was at the South African naval base at the time Brigety suggested, and is tied to a company sanctioned by the U.S. for transporting weapons for the Russian government and aiding its war effort, according to the Associated Press.

After the meeting with South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor on Friday, Brigety said on Twitter that he was “grateful,” for the opportunity to “correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks.”

In a separate statement Friday, Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for The State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken with Pandor on Friday.

“Secretary Blinken underscored the importance of the U.S.- South Africa strategic partnership and reiterated cooperation on shared priorities, including health, trade, and energy,” he said.

South Africa’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, insisted in a statement posted to Twitter Saturday that Pretoria had not breached its declared neutrality in the Ukraine conflict.

Monyela said his government’s committee for arms control “is on record saying they’ve not approved any sale of arms to Russia, related to the period or incident in question,” adding that any assertion that South Africa sold arms or is arming Russia, was “factually incorrect.”

South Africa’s own arms control laws stipulate that the country “will not trade in conventional arms with states engaged in repression, aggression or terrorism.”

His comments came after the office of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday said in a statement Thursday that Brigety's remarks were “disappointing” and “counterproductive” and they undermined an agreement between the U.S. and South Africa to conduct an independent investigation into the matter.  

Asked about the allegations in South Africa’s National Assembly on Thursday, Ramaphose said there were “being looked into.”

South Africa abstained from condemning the Russian invasion in a United Nations vote last year and said it would take a neutral stance on the war, while calling for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. 

The country also hosted Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov for talks in January, and allowed Russian and Chinese warships to use its waters for joint naval drills that coincided with the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine in February. 

Their historical relationship is predicated on the Soviet Union’s support for the ruling African National Congress when it was still a liberation group fighting to end apartheid.