Mystery surrounds the presence of a US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship in Simon’s Town, Cape Town.

The commercial vessel, Lady R, with Cyrillic letters, is understood to have sailed into the Simon’s Town Naval Base on Tuesday night.

The ship was built in 2004 and is a Ro-Ro (roll-on, roll-off) vessel, meaning it is used mainly for transporting wheeled cargo.

The ship’s automatic identification system (AIS), which is used to provide the positioning and information about a vessel, seemed to be offline, according to online ship monitoring services.

According to Vessel Finder, the vessel was en route to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and was expected to arrive on Thursday. It was last recorded as being south of Agulhas.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the US imposed sanctions on the country.

South Africa has avoided criticising Russia, abstaining in several UN votes to condemn the war.

The Lady R was among dozens of Russian vessels and shipping companies that were sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

DA spokesperson on defence Kobus Marais said: “Apparently, they needed assistance, and as part of maritime protocols we are obliged to assist. Not quite sure exactly what the problem was exactly, either engine or rudder problems.”

Both the SA Navy and Department of Defence were approached for comment. This will be added once received.

Lady R’s early departure from the Simon’s Town Naval Base comes after three nights of highly guarded activity, as mysterious and – as it stands – unidentified cargo was moved on and off the ship in the presence of armed officials under the cover of darkness.

The Russian cargo ship docked between 8pm and 10pm on Tuesday. Its automatic identification system (AIS) – which provides the ship’s position, identification and other information to other vessels and coastal authorities – was offline. By 1.43pm on Friday, Lady R had still not shown up on marine monitoring services – an indication that its AIS is likely to be switched off.

On Thursday, DA defense spokesperson Kobus Marais, wrote to Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thandi Modise asking that she explain why the US-sanctioned Russian vessel was docked at the Simon’s Town naval dockyard, and why it was “shrouded in secrecy”.

Marais asked the SANDF and the navy to explain the presence of the commercial vessel which had docked in a navy port, but still had not received a reply by 11am on Friday.

He also said that it was clear from the information he had received that the hive of activity surrounding the vessel in the past days had mainly occurred during the night.

Several Simon’s Town residents observed and photographed cranes moving at least six containers between trucks and the Lady R at the naval dockyard quayside from just before midnight on Thursday.

“Trucks were parked at a local sports ground during the day, and were heavily armed and guarded,” he said.

Marais said there is “clearly there’s an involvement of Armscor” – the arms procurement agency of the Department of Defence. The information he had received was that Armscor was involved in contracting the truckers to transport the cargo.

David S Feldmann, spokesperson for the US embassy in Pretoria, said that since May 8, 2022, Lady R and its parent company, Transmorflot LLC,had been subject to US economic sanctions.

“We had previously advised the South African government that the Lady R was planning to stop in South Africa,” he said on Thursday.

“We had indicated the vessel was sanctioned under US law because the ship is part of Russia’s military export-import business and had cautioned that entities supporting the vessel could run afoul of US sanctions,” he added.

To date there has been no official explanation from the Department of Defence (DoD), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), nor the navy for the arrival of the ship. Daily Maverick has repeatedly contacted the DoD, SANDF and the navy for comment, but has received no reply.



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Piers Potter


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