The war in Ukraine must end, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has told Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin.
Mr Ramaphosa’s told Mr Putin at a meeting in St Petersburg that both parties to return their prisoners of war and said children removed by Russia should be returned.
The pair met as part of a peace mission with six other African countries. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the delegation on Friday that he would not enter talks with Russia while they occupied Ukrainian land.
Mr Putin told the African leaders Ukraine had always refused talks.
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Mr Putin has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court over the forced removal of hundreds of Ukrainian children from their families during Russia’s occupation of Ukraine.
As the African delegation called for the return of children to their families, Mr Putin interrupted their speech and claimed Russia was protecting them.
“Children are sacred. We moved them out of the conflict zone, saving their lives and health”, he said.
The UN said they have evidence of the illegal transfer of hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Mr Ramaphosa also warned Mr Putin of the impacts of the war on Africa, and said it should be settled by diplomacy.
“The war cannot go on forever. All wars have to be settled and come to an end at some stage,” he said.
“And we are here to communicate a very clear message that we would like this war to be ended.”
The war has severely restricted the export of grain from Ukraine and fertiliser from Russia, which has hit African countries in particular and intensified global food insecurity.
But Mr Putin blamed the West for the grain crisis as he said only 3% of the grain exports permitted under a UN-sponsored deal to ensure its safe passage through the Black Sea had gone to the world’s poorest countries.
Russia has repeatedly complained that Western sanctions are restricting its own agricultural exports.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were “no grounds for extending” the grain deal, because “so far what we were promised has not been done”.
Mr Putin praised what he described as Africa’s balanced position on the war, which Russia continues to call a “special military operation”.
The African delegation, made up of representatives from South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville, Comoros, Zambia, and Uganda has been specifically designed for breadth and balance.
South Africa and Uganda are seen as leaning towards Russia, while Zambia and Comoros are closer to the West. Egypt, Senegal and Congo-Brazzaville have remained largely neutral.
African countries have primarily seen the conflict a confrontation between Russia and the West.
Details about the delegation’s proposals were thin, but Mr Peskov added: “The peace initiative proposed by African countries is very difficult to implement, difficult to compare positions.”
The delegation also met with Ukrainian leaders on Friday, with Mr Ramaphosa warning the war was affecting between 1.2bn and 1.3bn people in Africa.
After the leaders landed, air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, which Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said demonstrated that Mr Putin wanted “more war”.
During their meeting, Mr Zelensky told the delegation that “an important result of your mission” would be to intercede to bring about the release of political prisoners held by Russia.