S. Africa claims neutrality on Falklands' but may be selling arms

South Africa is dusting off its welcome mat for any friendly Western nation that would like to share its Simonstown naval base.

It hopes the Falklands war will prod Britain and others operating in the South Atlantic to look again at the strategic value of the Cape of Good Hope.

But should Britain show up on the doorstep during its battle with Argentina, South Africa might pretend not to be at home. This is because South Africa has charted a carefully ''neutral'' role in the Falklands crisis.

But that neutral stand is called into question by press reports here that South Africa is supplying Argentina with arms.

The Johannesburg Star, quoting unnamed sources, said Monday that South Africa is providing Argentina with spare parts for Mirage fighter bombers as well as surface-to-surface missiles.

The South African government refused to confirm or deny the report. A Foreign Affairs spokesman said it was government policy not to comment on arms purchases or sales. However he said South Africa had ''volunteered'' information to Britain that Russian spy planes were operating from Angola in surveillance of the British fleet. South Africa had also assured Britain it would not sell Argentina Exocet missiles -- the type used in sinking the Royal Navy destroyer Sheffield. This deviation from the ''no comment'' policy was because South Africa was aware of the emotional reaction in Britain to the Sheffield's sinking , the spokesman said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs says its policy of neutrality does not conflict with sales of arms. The international arms embargo against South Africa for its racial policies and Western criticism of those policies have forced South Africa to look for new friends. It has strengthened ties with Argentina and other nations of South America, and does not want to jeopardize them by tilting toward Britain in the current crisis.

No one here takes seriously the prospect of Britain seeking military bases in South Africa at this moment, although it might be advantageous to the British war effort. The distance from the Falklands to South Africa is only marginally less than to Ascension Island, which Britain has used as a base, but facilities for repair and support are vastly superior in South Africa.

The reason analysts do not believe Britain will seek a base here immediately is that such a request might cause diplomatic problems, particularly in the United Nations, that would offset any military gains.

But a scenario military analysts consider increasingly plausible, if Britain suffers serious damage to its fleet, is that it might have to choose between abandoning a ship or seeking safe harbor or repair in South Africa.

''As the situation is now, Britain won't ask (to base military operations from South Africa),'' says Deon Fourie, a lecturer in strategic studies at the University of South Africa. ''They know they'd get a refusal.''

However, should Britain suffer ''severe casualties and damage to their vessels, they might have to ask us to use repair facilities,'' Mr. Fourie suggests. Large ships like the Royal Navy's carriers or the QE2 would, if damaged, ''have little option but to come here,'' he adds.

South Africa hopes the Falklands crisis will lead to a reassessment by the West of the importance of maintaining a stronger conventional naval presence in the South Atlantic. South Africa has long warned of what it sees as the increasingly threatening presence of the Soviet Navy in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

But Pretoria wants to avoid any suggestion it is helping Britain's war effort , Mr. Fourie says. He speculates that if a damaged vessel were brought here, South Africa might intern the ship for the duration of the war.

South Africa is enjoying a certain amount of self-satisfaction from Britain's difficulties staging a war so far from its shores. Britain initially developed South Africa's Simonstown naval base, but withdrew from using it in 1975. The arrangement allowed Britain access to the base while providing South Africa with equipment and military training.

The agreement, if in force today, would permit Britain full access to Simonstown and probably even rights to use South African air bases, Mr. Fourie says. South Africa would no doubt also enjoy the ''moral'' support any Western naval presence would imply.

However, breaking the arms embargo is seen by analysts here as a step major Western nations are not willing to take, without some significant change in South Africa's racial policies.

Indeed, South Africa's invitation to Western powers to use Simonstown is seen here increasingly as a ''reflex'' response. South Africa probably would not quickly grant use of Simonstown without extracting a good price for itself. The Falklands crisis makes clear that South Africa now has diplomatic considerations that weigh just as heavily as any new military cooperation with the West. Even if a friendly nation wanted to use Simonstown, South Africa would be wary that such an agreement would be subject to political changes in that country.

Also, the arms embargo is not as harmful to South Africa as it once was. South Africa now is largely self-sufficient in military hardware. Its needs are restricted mainly to aircraft, and it would need foreign help for larger naval vessels, military analysts say.

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