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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends a news conference during his meeting with delegation of African leaders in Kyiv.
War in Ukraine

Zelenskyy urges African leaders to pressure Putin on political prisoners during Russia visit

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to seven African leaders who are on a ‘peace mission’ – they will visit Russia tomorrow.

LAST UPDATE | 16 Jun 2023

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR Zelenskyyy has appealed to a group of African leaders to ask Vladimir Putin to free political prisoners from Crimea and beyond, saying it would be an “important step” during their trip to Russia tomorrow.

Seven African leaders — 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 today as part of a self-styled “peace mission” to try to help end the nearly 16-month-old war.

The African leaders were traveling to meet Putin tomorrow 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, and it carried extra importance for the African countries, as they rely in varying degrees on food and fertiliser deliveries from Russia and Ukraine.

in-this-photo-provided-by-the-ukrainian-presidential-press-office-ukrainian-president-volodymyr-zelenskyy-left-and-senegals-president-macky-sall-shake-hands-their-meeting-in-kyiv-ukraine-friday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Senegal's President Macky Sall shake hands before a meeting in Kyiv. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“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 this afternoon.

Ramaphosa and others acknowledged the intensity of the fight and the animosity between Russia and Ukraine, but insisted all wars must come to an end — and that the delegation wants to help expedite that.

from-right-south-african-president-cyril-ramaphosa-president-of-the-union-of-comoros-azali-assoumani-senegals-president-macky-sall-and-zambias-president-hakainde-hichilema-bottom-attend-a-comm South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the Union of Comoros Azali Assoumani, Senegal's President Macky Sall, and Zambia's President Hakainde Hichilema attend a commemoration ceremony at a site of a mass grave in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“I do believe that Ukrainians feel that they must fight and not give up. The road to peace is very hard,” he said, adding that “there is a need to bring this conflict to an end sooner rather than later”.

The delegation, including Senegal’s president Macky Sall and Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia, represents a cross-section of African views about the war.

South Africa, Senegal and Uganda have avoided censuring Moscow for the conflict, while Egypt, Zambia and Comoros voted against Russia last year in a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion.

Many African nations have long had close ties with Moscow, dating back to the Cold War when the Soviet Union supported their anti-colonial struggles.

The tenor of the press conference soured 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 to Putin.

Zelenskyyy 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?” Zelenskyyy said. “Maybe this will be an important result of your mission, of your ‘road map’.”

Zelenskyyy expressed thinly veiled frustration about their trip, saying they would have “conversations with the terrorists” tomorrow.

International human rights organisations say Russia has targeted the Crimean Tatar ethnic group with arbitrary detentions and unjustified prosecutions since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Many have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

“The Russian Federation misuses its legislation for political purposes, in particular to suppress the non-violent struggle of the Crimean Tatars and their protest against the occupation of Crimea,” the Crimean Tatar Resource Centre said in a statement last year.

Ramaphosa, who laid out 10 priorities to help pave the way to ending the war, said he planned to have a bilateral meeting with Putin in part to discuss the Russian leader’s possible attendance at a planned August summit, hosted by South Africa, of the so-called “Brics” countries, which also include Brazil, China and India.

in-this-handout-photo-provided-by-photo-host-agency-ria-novosti-russian-president-vladimir-putin-addresses-a-plenary-session-of-the-st-petersburg-international-economic-forum-in-st-petersburg-russ Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The International Criminal Court in March issued an international arrest warrant against Putin over Russian abductions of Ukrainian children, which could complicate any trip by Putin to South Africa.

Ramaphosa said he alone would decide whether to invite the Russian leader, saying it was still “under consideration.”

Before meeting Zelenskyyy, the African leaders went to 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.

The delegation’s stop in Bucha was symbolically significant, because the town has come to stand for the brutality of Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian occupation of Bucha left hundreds of civilians dead, with some showing signs of torture.

While in Bucha, the visitors placed commemorative candles at a small memorial outside a church near where a mass grave was unearthed.

On their way back to the capital, air raid sirens went off in Kyiv — prompting them to briefly return to their hotel as a “precautionary measure,” Ramaphosa’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya said.

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