Tillerson, Russia’s Lavrov both in Africa, but don’t meet

Sergey Lavrov
The Associated Press

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — They could have run into each other sipping coffee in the lobby, perhaps at the bar at Ethiopia’s finest hotel. But U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov didn’t meet, and now both countries are trading accusations about who’s to blame.

The top American and Russian diplomats warily circled each other in Africa, where both are paying official visits this week. As their two countries trade accusations over Syria, Ukraine and even the Oscars, their governments are trolling each other with barbs on social media.

Russia said that both Tillerson and Lavrov were staying at the lush Sheraton Addis resort while in Ethiopia, where Tillerson met Thursday with the country’s outgoing prime minister and with the African Union Commission’s chairman.

It was unclear how long the two overlapped in the Ethiopian capital. Tillerson arrived on Wednesday afternoon. Lavrov departed sometime Wednesday and arrived late at night at his next stop in Harare, Zimbabwe.

So whose decision was it to forego a tete-a-tete? In an illustration of how just how prickly U.S.-Russia relations have become, even that seemingly bureaucratic issue became a matter of fierce disagreement.

Russia for days had been calling publicly for a meeting, and accused Washington of failing to respond to its request.

“This would be a great opportunity to discuss a range of accumulated issues on the regional and global agenda not through the press, but directly,” Russia’s Embassy in Washington wrote on Facebook

Not so, the United States insisted. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this week that the U.S. had received no request from Russia’s government for a meeting with Tillerson and had “no meeting to announce at this time.”

That prompted Lavrov to dispute her directly. From Zimbabwe, Lavrov said he’d preferred not weigh in, but felt compelled after learning that the State Department claimed no meeting was ever discussed.

“I want to say that this is untrue,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Russian state news agency Tass.

If they were to have met, there’s plenty for the two world powers to discuss. Nauert and the State Department have been publicly deploring Russia’s actions in Syria and accusing Moscow of “bombing civilians” in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta. And President Donald Trump remains under intense scrutiny over his reluctance to challenge Russia over alleged interference in the U.S. election.

Russia’s embassy, taunting Washington in its Facebook post, said that Nauert’s insistence that Russia never requested a meeting indicated that “something seems to have broken in her department.”

“In any case, we congratulate Heather Nauert and, of course, all female employees of the State Department on International Women’s Day!” the embassy wrote.

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Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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