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The Russian vessel Lady R is docked at the Simon's Town Naval Base near Cape Town, South Africa, on Dec. 8, 2022.The Associated Press

A Russian cargo ship, evading U.S. sanctions and possible foreign surveillance, violated South African laws as it sailed quietly into a naval base last December with a secret cargo, President Cyril Ramaphosa says.

Mr. Ramaphosa, releasing a brief summary of an official inquiry’s confidential report on Tuesday night, did not provide any details of the Russian violations. He emphasized, for the second time in three days, that the probe had found no evidence that South African weapons were loaded onto the Russian ship, despite much-publicized allegations from a United States diplomat.

But critics said the inquiry had failed to clear up some of the key questions about the controversial ship visit – and had sparked fresh questions with its findings. The inquiry lacked subpoena power and could not compel witnesses to testify. Its full report will be kept secret for security reasons, and the government will not answer any further questions on the matter, Mr. Ramaphosa said on Tuesday night.

The mysterious visit of the Russian ship, the Lady R, has been an explosive issue for many months because it suggested that South Africa had a closer relationship with Moscow than it had admitted. The U.S. had imposed sanctions on the Russian ship because of its role in weapons shipments for the Ukraine war.

The South African government and the ruling African National Congress have claimed to be non-aligned on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the ANC has often echoed Moscow’s propaganda about the war, while the government has forged a close friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates.

On its journey to South Africa, the ship stopped at a port in Cameroon that reportedly serves as a supply hub for Russian soldiers in Africa. It was carrying military supplies that South Africa had ordered in 2018, Mr. Ramaphosa said, but he refused to give details, saying that “lives would be at risk” if he disclosed the type of equipment used by the South African army.

In his summary of the inquiry’s findings, Mr. Ramaphosa said the ship had planned to dock in the South African city of Port Elizabeth, but shipping agents refused to service it because of the U.S. sanctions. So the South African army decided the ship should dock at a naval base near Cape Town “to rescue the situation,” he said.

The inquiry confirmed that the Russian ship – in a highly unusual move – had switched off its transponder so that it could not be tracked. This was because of the “urgent circumstances” of its diversion to the naval base, and because of “the tracking of the vessel by foreign intelligence agencies,” the summary said.

“The vessel and those who assisted it contravened a number of provisions that relate to commercial vessels docking at South African ports,” it added.

It also confirmed that the ship’s cargo was unloaded “under cover of darkness.” This is “standard practice” for military equipment, it said.

Critics questioned many of its statements. The summary said, for example, that the ship’s military cargo was from the United Arab Emirates – but the ship’s route showed no stops at any UAE ports. South African records also show no import permits for Russian or UAE military goods in 2018, despite the summary’s claims.

Darren Olivier, an analyst at African Defence Review, said the explanation for the ship switching off its transponder was “ridiculous,” and the explanation of the nighttime unloading did not make sense. The summary was “frustratingly short of answers” and “will not be able to reassure the public,” Mr. Olivier said in a social-media post.

Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said the department appreciated the “seriousness” of the South African inquiry. But he made clear that the U.S. was not withdrawing its concerns about the Russian ship’s activities in South Africa.

A South African social-justice organization, Open Secrets, said it has requested a full copy of the inquiry’s report under access to information laws. “Information of this nature should not, as a matter of course, be kept from the public,” it said.

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