Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged a group of African leaders to ask his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to free political prisoners from Crimea and beyond, saying it would be an “important step” during their trip to Russia on Saturday.
Seven African leaders – the presidents of Comoros, Senegal, South Africa and Zambia, as well as Egypt’s prime minister and top envoys from the Republic of Congo and Uganda – visited Ukraine on Friday as part of a self-styled “peace mission” to both Ukraine and Russia to try to help end their nearly 16-month-old war.
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On Saturday, the African leaders will travel to meet Putin in the Russian city of St Petersburg.
The mission to Ukraine, the first of its kind by African leaders, comes in the wake of other peace initiatives such as one by China.
“This conflict is affecting Africa negatively,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said at a news conference alongside Zelenskyy and the four other African heads of state or government, after the leaders met for closed-door talks on Friday afternoon.
The trip is seen as a crucial one as many African nations, to varying degrees, rely on food and fertiliser deliveries from Russia and Ukraine, whose war has jeopardised and impeded exports from one of the world’s most important breadbaskets.
“I do believe that Ukrainians feel that they must fight and not give up. The road to peace is very hard,” Ramaphosa added.
“Today, we even told President Zelenskyy that we not only recognise their [Ukrainians’] viewpoint, but we also respect how they feel about the war that’s going on. But we also said there is a need to bring this conflict to an end sooner rather than later.”
Zelenskyy told reporters after the meeting with the delegation of African leaders, “I clearly said several times at our meeting that to allow any negotiations with Russia now that the occupier is on our land is to freeze the war, to freeze pain and suffering.”
He also said that peace talks with Russia would be possible only after Moscow withdraws its forces from occupied Ukrainian territory.
“We need real peace, and therefore, a real withdrawal of Russian troops from our entire independent land.”
The mood of the news conference became tense when Comoros President Azali Assoumani floated the idea of a “road map” to peace, prompting questions from Zelenskyy who sought a clarification and insisted he did not want “any surprises” from their visit with Putin.
Zelenskyy then urged them to help free political prisoners from Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
“Would you please ask Russia to liberate the political prisoners?” Zelenskyy said. “Maybe this will be an important result of your mission, of your ‘road map’.”
Earlier, explosions rocked Kyiv as air raid sirens blared in the Ukrainian capital as the visit began.
“Putin ‘builds confidence’ by launching the largest missile attack on Kyiv in weeks, exactly amid the visit of African leaders to our capital,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter afterwards. “Russian missiles are a message to Africa: Russia wants more war, not peace.”
Before their meeting with Zelenskyy, the African leaders visited Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where bodies of civilians lay scattered in the streets last year after Russian troops abandoned a campaign to seize the capital and withdrew from the area.
Prospective peace plan
The peace mission could propose a series of “confidence-building measures” during initial efforts at mediation, according to a draft framework document seen by the Reuters news agency.
The document stated that the objective of the mission is “to promote the importance of peace and to encourage the parties to agree to a diplomacy-led process of negotiations”.
Its measures could include a Russian pullback, removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Belarus and suspension of the implementation of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant targeting Putin.
A ceasefire could follow and would need to be accompanied by negotiations between Russia and the West, the document stated.
Kyiv said its own plan, which envisages the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian land, must be the basis for any settlement of the war.
Meanwhile, a diplomatic standoff continues between South African officials and Polish authorities in Warsaw.
South Africa’s News 24 reported that the row began after a charter plane with presidential security and journalists landed in the Polish capital from Johannesburg on Thursday afternoon.
Ramaphosa, who landed on a separate flight, had to travel to Kyiv by train with an unknown number of security personnel even as the plane is reportedly still stuck in Warsaw.
“A second charter plane that was apparently supposed to take the security team to a rendezvous with the president in the south of Poland before he travelled to Kyiv never arrived to pick up the South Africans upon their arrival at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport,” News 24 reported.
“It is unclear who the service provider is who was to provide the second charter plane.”
According to South African journalists at the scene, Polish authorities refused to let the South African security personnel leave the plane and threatened to confiscate 13 containers of weapons and equipment on it.
In response, General Wally Rhoode, head of Ramaphosa’s security, called a news conference on the steps of the plane.
“They are delaying us,” he said, accusing Polish authorities of “sabotage” and “racism”, according to media outlet EWN. “They’re putting the life of our president in jeopardy because we could have been in Kyiv this afternoon already.”