“The South African people remain important partners of the United States, but we can no longer accept its government’s continued hostile acts against U.S. sovereign interests and must respond appropriately,” he said.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is already confronting a political storm over whether his government would fulfill an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for President Vladimir V. Putin if the Russian leader visits the country as part of a summit planned for August.
Flight radar records show the plane, an Ilyushin IL-76, originated at Russia’s Chkalovsky military airfield near Moscow on April 21 and made stops in the Middle East and Africa: Baghdad; Cairo; Damascus, Syria; Algiers; and Marrakesh, Morocco. It then headed to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and went on to Angola.
The aircraft then took off from Luanda, Angola, and landed at South Africa’s Waterkloof Air Force Base on April 24, the Defense Department said. (That day, flight records show an undisclosed stop, believed to be in South Africa.) The plane flew on to Harare, Zimbabwe, the next day.
The Russian Embassy had made a formal request to South Africa’s Foreign Ministry to let the plane land at the base, where diplomatic aircraft are allowed to travel, the Defense Department statement said.
It is not unusual for countries to deliver diplomatic correspondence by aircraft, but such deliveries are open to abuse, said Kobus Marais, a member of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Mr. Marais questioned why the plane did not use a commercial airport nearby, which is more typical for offloading diplomatic bags, he said.
Diplomatic mail could be as small as a few envelopes or as a large as a container, but a defense analyst, Helmoed Heitman, said it was unusual for Russia to use a cargo aircraft to deliver packages to its embassy.