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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUMAYA HISHAM/REUTERS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUMAYA HISHAM/REUTERS

The multimillion-rand mission by six African heads of state spearheaded by President Cyril Ramaphosa to forge peace in the war in Ukraine hit a glitch this week.

The advance team of the presidential protection services was scheduled to leave for Russia via Poland to establish its security apparatus and personnel before the imminent mission to Russia but encountered difficulties due to aviation insurance exclusions for certain aircraft operators into Russia.

According to aviation sources closely involved in the aviation charter business, a passenger jet costing more than R20m sourced from a North African airline apparently was no longer available due to insurance limitations travelling into Russia.

An aircraft was then apparently sourced in the United Arab Emirates, but the departure is expected to be delayed because clearances required for such flights were by Tuesday morning still in process. By the afternoon, the chartered aircraft had not arrived in Johannesburg.

This could mean a delay in the placement of the protectors and the timely completion of a threat assessment before the presidential mission, as well as the intricate logistics involved in the mission to succeed.

The heads of state from Egypt, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Ramaphosa are leading the peace mission. While it was expected to start soon, Ramaphosa was to depart on Tuesday night for Geneva where he will attend the World of Work Summit, hosted by the International Labour Organisation.

The SA Police Service (SAPS) in its response did not elaborate much due to “operational security” reasons, but confirmed that the flight was “on schedule”. It is understood that the flight was scheduled to leave Tuesday night with about 120 passengers and equipment on board.

Security concerns

At a media briefing on Monday, presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said the departure and flight details of the presidential peace mission would not be made public due to security concerns in a high-risk area.

It is also unclear how and where Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky will fit into the negotiations as the advance team at least will fly only to Russia and back — not to Kyiv, Ukraine.

“The presidential protection services team is heading over there to conduct their usual advance security threat assessment and planning exercise once dates are affirmed [before the presidential mission],” Magwenya said.

Police national spokesperson Brig Athlenda Mathe said in response to Business Day’s questions that the charter of the team’s aircraft was not handled by the air force as it was only responsible for the air transport of the president and deputy president. The flight arrangements were therefore handled by the police.

The air force sources chartered aircraft as per a list of approved VVIP service providers on a government contract. Business Day understands from sources in the aviation industry that the service providers in turn need to find aircraft abroad for certain international flights if none is available in SA.

Need assurance

Even though Mathe said the service provider was on the approved Treasury database, the aircraft sourced in North Africa encountered problems with the airline’s insurers because of the flight’s destination.

According to Mathe, the issue of insurance was not the police’s problem, but that of the airline responsible for supplying  the chartered jet. The police just needed to be assured that the airline complied with international aviation rules and regulations.

Most SA service providers “contacted the same airline [for aircraft] but inflated the price [quoted to the police] with almost 200% in profit”, Mathe said.

She confirmed the flight path was from SA to Poland, then on to Russia and back to Poland, back to Russia and back to SA.

Insurance for aircraft operators became an issue after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the subsequent sanctions issued by the US and the EU. Russia closed its airspace to countries that maintained sanctions against it while the same applied to restrictions on Russian-registered aircraft over Europe, the US and other countries that sided with the US and the EU.

About 500 commercial aircraft leased from EU and US companies and operating within Russia remain trapped in Russia after the sanctions were announced. Russia subsequently confiscated the aircraft refusing to allow them to fly back to its lessors, causing millions of dollar in losses.

While certain airlines and aviation operators still continue with scheduled flights in and out of Russia, some chartered aircraft are leased under different insurance restrictions and would therefore not be covered when flying into the four countries. Aircraft from the UAE continue to operate in and out of Russia without any restrictions.

The peace talks in Russia would only be announced on the day they started in Moscow, Magwenya said.

Ramaphosa will host a joint working visit by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen next Tuesday.

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