S.Africa's army chief visits Moscow for bilateral talks

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

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) -The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said on Monday that its army chief, Lawrence Mbatha, was in Moscow for a bilateral meeting, where he will visit Russian military academies and hold talks with officials.

"It must be noted that South Africa has military-to-military bilateral relations with various countries in the continent and beyond," the SANDF said in a statement, adding that the meeting in Russia was planned well in advance.

Earlier on Monday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country's non-aligned position did not favour Russia over other states and reiterated its call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine.

Ramaphosa made the comments in a weekly presidential newsletter. Last week, the United States alleged that weapons were loaded onto Russian ship Lady R from a naval base in Cape Town late last year, which sparked a diplomatic row.

South African officials swiftly rejected claims made by the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, who also said senior U.S. officials had "profound concerns" over South Africa's professed policy of non-alignment and neutrality over Russia's war in Ukraine.

"We do not accept that our non-aligned position favours Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries," Ramaphosa said.

South Africa would continue to honour international agreements and treaties to which it is a signatory and its approach to U.S. allegations of arms shipment would abide by them, he added.

Ramaphosa's office has said no concrete evidence has been provided to support the claims made by the ambassador, but that an inquiry led by a retired judge would look in to them.

Several ministers, including the one responsible for arms control, a foreign ministry spokesman and the communications minister have said South Africa had not approved any arms shipment to Russia in December.

Brigety was summoned on Friday to meet South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and he apologised "unreservedly" to the government and the people of South Africa, a foreign ministry statement said.

"I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor ... and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks," Brigety said in a tweet that did not confirm whether he had apologised.

South Africa, which has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on Russia's war in Ukraine, says it is impartial. Western countries, however, consider it one of Moscow's closest allies on the continent.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Carien du Plessis in JohannesburgWriting by Bhargav Acharya and Anait MiridzhanianEditing by Jamie Freed and Matthew Lewis)