US ambassador to Pretoria summoned after saying he was confident that a Russian ship had collected weapons from South Africa.
South African officials have hit back at US accusations that a Russian ship collected weapons from a naval base near Cape Town late last year.
The US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety said on Thursday he was confident that a Russian ship under US sanctions took on board 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 has said it is impartial and has abstained from voting on UN resolutions on the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday 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 US 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 by the South African foreign ministry, which “expressed the government’s utter displeasure with his conduct and statements made yesterday” a statement from the ministry said.
It said Brigety “admitted that he crossed the line and apologised unreservedly to the government and the people of South Africa”.
There was no immediate comment from the US Department of State.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Friday declined to get into the specific allegations against South Africa, but reiterated Washington’s position about any country aiding the Russian war effort.
After leaving Simon’s Town, Refinitiv shipping data showed the vessel, the “Lady R”, sailed north to Mozambique, spending January 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 February 16, the data showed.
The Associated Press news agency reported that records showed that the Lady R was tied to a company that was sanctioned by the US for transporting weapons for the Russian government and aiding its war effort.
Washington has warned that countries providing material support to Russia may be denied access to US markets.