PRETORIA (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in South Africa on Monday for talks with one of its most important allies on a continent that is divided over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and related Western attempts to isolate it.

He was to meet Soth Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, in a trip some opposition parties and the small Ukrainian community have condemned as insensitive.

A ministry spokesman said Lavrov had arrived in South Africa on Monday morning. He and Pandor are expected to hold a joint news conference around 1000 GMT.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government regards South Africa as neutral in the conflict and has expressed a desire to mediate.

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Pandor has repeatedly insisted that South Africa will not be dragged into taking sides, and has criticised the West for its selective condemnation of Russia while ignoring other issues such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

Even as South Africa has proclaimed impartiality on the conflict and abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions, it has retained close relations with Russia, historically a friend of the governing African National Congress when it was a liberation movement against white minority rule.

The South African military is set to host a joint military exercise with Russia and China on its east coast on Feb. 17 to 27, a move likely to further strain ties with Washington and European countries. It coincides with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The South African military said last week the military exercise is a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China”.

Russian news agency TASS reported on Monday that a Russian warship armed with new-generation hypersonic cruise weapons would take part in the drills.

South Africa has little trade with Russia, but it is a champion of a world view, favoured by China and Russia, that seeks to undo perceived U.S.-hegemony in favour of a ‘multipolar’ world in which geopolitical power is more diffuse.

Lavrov’s second African visit in six months comes ahead of the Russia-Africa summit, which has been postponed to July 2023 from last year due to the Ukraine conflict.

There was no official public comment from the Ukrainian embassy but officials said the embassy asked the South African government to help push President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s 10-point peace plan which he proposed to the G20 in November.

(Reporting by Carien Du Plessis; Editing by Tim Cocks and Angus MacSwan)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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