South Africa to investigate U.S. allegations of arms shipment to Russia

FILE PHOTO: South African President Ramaphosa replies to questions in parliament in Cape Town

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed a panel to investigate U.S. allegations that a Russian ship had collected weapons from a naval base near Cape Town last year, the presidency said in a statement on Sunday.

The U.S. ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety said on May 11 that he was confident that a Russian ship, which docked at a naval base in Simonstown in the Western Cape in December last year, took aboard weapons from South Africa. An allegation South Africa has since denied.

The allegations have caused a diplomatic row between the U.S., South Africa and Russia and called into question South Africa's non-aligned position on the Ukraine conflict.

South Africa says it is impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on the war.

"The President decided to establish the enquiry because of the seriousness of the allegations, the extent of public interest and the impact of this matter on South Africa's international relations," said the statement.

The three-member panel will be chaired by Phineas Mojapelo, former deputy judge president of Gauteng province. The other two members are Advocate Leah Gcabashe, who was former evidence leader for a state corruption inquiry that ended last year, and Enver Surty, former deputy minister of basic education. It will have six weeks to conduct its investigation.

The terms of reference for the panel include establishing who was aware of the cargo ship's arrival, the contents that were loaded and off-loaded and "whether constitutional, legal or other obligations were complied with in relation to the cargo ship's arrival."

The president is expected to receive a final report within two weeks of the investigation concluding.

(Reporting by Kopano Gumbi. Editing by Jane Merriman)