Scholz downplays differences on Ukraine on South America tour

By Sarah Marsh

SANTIAGO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sought to drum up support for Ukraine during his first South American tour although differences with his hosts emerged, with Argentine President Alberto Fernandez declaring the region was not planning on sending weapons.

On his three-day trip, Scholz has sought to stress unity, noting all three countries he is visiting - Argentina, Chile and Brazil - condemned Russia's invasion at the United Nations General Assembly last year.

The fallout of the war and Western sanctions on Russia such as soaring food and energy prices, however, have hit the region particularly hard, raising questions over the West's approach.

Fernandez said in a joint news conference with Scholz in Buenos Aires on Saturday that Argentina, like Germany, wanted to help restore peace as soon as possible.

But asked if Argentina would send weapons to Ukraine to fend off Russian troops like Germany and its western allies had, he gave an emphatic no.

"Argentina and Latin America are not planning to send weapons to Ukraine or any other conflict zone," he said.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric did not refer to the war in his opening statements at a news conference with Scholz in Santiago de Chile on Sunday, focusing instead on economic cooperation, particularly in the commodities sector.

In both countries, Scholz visited memorials to the victims of their military dictatorships that he said underscored the need to fight for democracy and freedom.

"At this memorial to the many victims of the dictatorship here I cannot help but think of the young people who are being killed in Iran because they are fighting for freedom and a better life," he said in Buenos Aires.

German government officials say it is understandable Latin American countries, so far away from Europe and with such different concerns, have diverging views on the war, but highlighted the importance of continuing to convey Berlin's perspective.

Scholz heads on Monday to Brazil to become the first Western leader to meet with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva since his inauguration.

European wants to re-set relations with South America's largest country following the exit of the divisive far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro.

The resilience of democracy is likely to be high on the agenda for talks given the storming of government buildings earlier this month by Bolsonaro supporters.

Still, differences can once more be expected.

Last year, Lula said Russia never should have invaded Ukraine, but added Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was as much to blame for the war as Russian leader Vladimir Putin. (Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Boyle; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)