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US Accuses South Africa of Loading Arms on Russian Cargo Ship

Russian cargo ship
Lady R has made frequent trips through the Bosphorus raising belief it is supporting the war effort in Ukraine (Twitter)

Published May 12, 2023 3:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Ambassador to South Africa on Thursday formally accused the country of aiding Russia in its war in Ukraine while calling for the African nation to honor its heritage of non-alignment. At issue is the secretive visit of a U.S.-sanctioned, Russian cargo ship to South Africa in December 2022. The media had widely reported on the ship’s call at South African naval base but until yesterday the U.S. had not publicly accused South Africa of using the vessel to supply materials to Russia.

Speaking in a series of interviews, Ambassador Reuben Brigety II confirmed the suspicions over the vessel’s stop at the naval base. Reports indicated that it was not unusual for cargo ships, including Russian ships, to stop at the commercial port but questioned why the ro-ro/freighter Lady R had been docked at the naval base in Simon’s Town. Media investigations said there had been loading activity overnight under the cover of darkness further raising suspicions.

“We are confident that weapons were loaded on that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” Ambassador Brigety said in a video interview released by Newzroom Afrika. During other interviews, the Ambassador repeated the accusation highlighting the Lady R’s stop at Simon’s Town from December 6 to 8 and saying “We are confident uploaded weapons and ammunition.”

The Ambassador’s remarks appeared to be carefully timed to meetings in Africa and the report Ukraine is preparing to launch a counteroffensive. He called for South Africa to follow its previously declared non-alignment policy.

Other than being registered in Russia, the Lady R is an innocuous freighter. Built in 2004, she is 7,250 dwt. She has a length of 400 feet. Tracking shows she has made a broad range of international trips as well as transits of the Bosphorus calling at the Russian port of Novorossiysk in the eastern Black Sea. After having departed the Black Sea last month, she is currently in the Suez Canal with her AIS reflecting a destination of Zhanjiang, China in June.

The U.S. Government linked the ship to the sanctioned Russian shipowner Transmorflot. In May 2022, the State Department listed the Lady R as a sanctioned vessel due to its believed involvement with alleged weapons shipments.

South African President Cecil Ramaphosa responded to the Ambassador’s statements initially calling them “disappointing,” and saying that they undermine cooperation between the U.S. and South Africa. He said that the government was aware of the allegations and had already promised to investigate. Opposition members of parliament have demanded answers and used the reports to embarrass the government.

A government spokesperson said that it is public knowledge that the Lady R docked in South Africa. He repeated the government position that there is no evidence currently that arms were loaded onto the ship.

The government responded on Friday summoning the ambassador to a meeting. In addition, they said they would address the matter directly with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

News24 one of the South African outlets that led with the story is today quoting experts doubting the authenticity of the accusations. “Experts believe cargo was unloaded from Lady R in December 2022, but that South Africa did not load anything onto the ship, adding that South Africa doesn't make any weapons that would be of use to Russia.”

They are saying that the ambassador’s remarks were in response to South Africa remaining “unrepentant in its position on Russia.” The South African government the contend failed to convince the U.S. during discussions earlier in the month that it remained non-aligned on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The ambassador alluded to the potential of U.S. sanctions if South Africa did not follow its declared policy of non-alignment.