Lady R’s arms load revealed




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● New details have emerged of the Russian arms and ammunition shipment that defence minister Thandi Modise says was delivered for South Africa’s special forces by the Lady R cargo ship in December last year. A highly placed government source told the Sunday Times the containers offloaded at Simon’s Town naval base from the Lady R — now at the centre of a major diplomatic row between Pretoria and Washington — included armour-piercing incendiary shells and machine guns suitable for mounting on aircraft. The source, who is not authorised to speak to the media and cannot be named, said the order had been placed before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic and was approved at the time by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), the body that oversees weapons sales. A permit was issued to Armscor, the department of defence’s acquisition agency, but due to delivery delays it had to be renewed up to three times. “It is routine that a permit can be renewed, but obviously conditions that existed when it was renewed must not have changed,” said the source. Just over a week ago, US ambassador Reuben Brigety ignited a diplomatic firestorm when he told reporters he had seen intelligence showing that the arms transaction had been in the other direction — South Africa had shipped munitions to Russia on the Lady R. No public evidence is available to support Brigety’s allegation that the ship picked up South African-supplied weapons for delivery to Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February last year. In the wake of Brigety’s bombshell, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Friday last week that he would appoint an inquiry into the matter led by a retired judge. He has yet to do so. The ambassador was summoned to the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) to explain himself. After this meeting Brigety apologised for any “misimpressions” arising from his allegations, but he did not withdraw them. The government source said Armscor bought the weapons through Rosoboronexport, the Russian state entity responsible for exporting military hardware, services and technologies. The source said the vessel was originally supposed to have docked at a port in KwaZulu-Natal, but was diverted to Simon’s Town — apparently at the request of Armscor — because a third party was monitoring it. It has not been established who was tracking the ship. Before it issues a permit to import or export arms, the NCACC considers such factors as whether any of the parties are involved in a conflict and whether South Africa’s foreign policy would allow it. Before a decision is made, input is sought from defence intelligence, the State Security Agency and Dirco. At the time the Lady R docked at Simon’s Town, Modise said the ship — the subject of US sanctions — had delivered munitions for the special forces that had been ordered long before the Ukraine war broke out. “We do know, however, that whatever contents this vessel was getting were ordered long before Covid started, and therefore the reason you are interested and America is interested in that vessel coming into our shores is actually because America threatens the rest of Africa — not just South Africa — of having anything that is even smelling of Russia,” Modise reportedly said. “As far as they’re concerned, we must consume all the Russian vodka quickly and if it is depleted you will be found wanting for drinking the Russian vodka.”