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2023-05-04 at 14:51 #403087Nat QuinnKeymaster
Russian aircraft of sanctioned firm in stealth Waterkloof landing
The defence force says it delivered diplomatic mail, but experts suggest the crew may have feared seizure
As SA’s international alignment with global powers comes under increasing scrutiny, a military aircraft owned by a Russian company under sanctions quietly slipped into the Waterkloof Air Force Base at night on April 24.
The aircraft that landed at Waterkloof belongs to Aviacon Zitotrans, one of the commercial airlines put under sanctions by the US treasury on January 26 over its involvement in transporting armaments and components on behalf of the Russian armed forces.
In the same announcement, the US treasury also slapped sanctions on the Wagner mercenary group as a transnational criminal organisation. Aviacon Zitotrans has assisted Wagner with supply flights in the past.
The aircraft in question was an Ilyushin IL-76 heavy-lift cargo aircraft that departed Chkalovsky Air Base in Russia on April 21. The base is home to the Russian Air Force’s eighth Special Purpose Aviation Division, as well as the 223rd and 224th Flight Detachment, which services the Wagner private military army with its logistical needs.
It circumvented the continent anticlockwise from Russia until it landed in various African countries before arriving at Waterkloof at 10pm on April 24. Four hours later it took off again.
The government has come under heavy criticism over its foreign policy, which seems to be pro-Russian. This followed after its repeated refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at world forums, and a joint naval exercise off the KwaZulu-Natal coast in February. In December, a Russian cargo vessel is alleged to have docked in Simon’s Town Naval Base carrying unknown cargo.
A debate is raging over SA’s International Criminal Court membership, which has become contentious in light of the upcoming Brics summit to be hosted by SA in August. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to attend despite a warrant for his arrest issued by the ICC for alleged atrocities committed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Asked for comment, Brig-Gen Andries Mahapa, defence force spokesperson, said the aircraft merely delivered some “diplomatic mail” for the Russian embassy in Pretoria.
Mahapa explained that the embassy requested assistance with the flight’s landing clearance at Waterkloof via a note verbale (diplomatic request) to the department of international relations and co-operation.
“All aircraft with international diplomatic status are allowed to land at Waterkloof provided the correct processes are followed. The flight was cleared by the Air Force Command Post with all the prescribed processes [having been] followed.
“The aircraft departed Luanda and arrived at AFB Waterkloof on Monday, April 24 2023 as specified on the request and clearance. It later departed AFB Waterkloof to Harare after the offloading of diplomatic mail,” Mahapa said in response to questions from Business Day.
What remains unclear is why the flight’s routing on the Flight Radar 24 application is clearly visible in all the countries where it landed, but not to and from the Waterkloof Air Force Base.
A renowned international satellite image analyst, @Gerjon_, who uses his Twitter handle due to the type of work he does, plotted the aircraft’s route and told Business Day this might indicate some sensitivity about the flight.
Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman said while the explanation seems viable considering the route the aircraft followed around the continent, it is not known what the “mail bag” contained.
“It could have been a substantial container. In the apartheid years the SA government used diplomatic bags to fly military components like tank batteries to SA because the country was under an international arms embargo.
“Just like the commercial Russian vessel [Lady R], which delivered unknown cargo at the Simon’s Town Naval Base in December, the crew was probably scared that the aircraft or vessel might be seized if it had landed at a commercial airport or harbour.
“The Ilyushin belongs to a commercial company [under sanctions] and seizure is a distinct possibility. The diplomatic bag could have contained sensitive documentation in light of President Vladimir Putin’s expected visit to SA for the Brics summit in August.
“The diplomatic bag could also have contained communication equipment in light of the expected visit or firearms for Putin’s protection team. We can only speculate,” Heitman said.
“It certainly is unusual for Russia to go to such extremes only to deliver the mail, but embassies do have regular logistical resupply flights. And there are no other commercial flights between SA and Russia to handle the supplies.”
The Ilyushin arrived back at Chkalovsky Air Base six days after its departure and flights serving 13 destinations along the way.
In the case of the Lady R the department of defence has not provided any details regarding the cargo that was up- and off loaded despite undertakings to do so.
Sources in the defence industry have said that it had delivered armaments for the SA Special Forces’ deployment in Mozambique.
It has also been speculated that the Lady R uploaded propellants for Russia’s military equipment in short supply for use against Ukraine.
Putin’s attendance has put SA under pressure to arrest the Russian president at the Brics summit after the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in March this year.
Justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola said this week in a briefing to the portfolio committee on justice & correctional services, the government was considering an amendment to legislation that would enable it to suspend the implementation of the Rome Statute, which gave rise to the International Criminal Court and to which SA is a signatory, during Putin’s visit.
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