Inspectors OK 1st Ukraine grain ship but no sign of more yet

ISTANBUL (AP) — The first grain ship to leave Ukraine and cross the Black Sea under a war deal was inspected in Istanbul on Wednesday and sailed on to Lebanon. Ukraine said 17 other ships were “loaded and awaiting clearance to leave”, but it was not yet known when they could depart.

A joint civilian inspection team spent three hours checking the cargo and crew of the Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni, which departed Odessa on Monday with Ukrainian corn, a UN statement said.

The Joint Coordination Center team included officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, who signed agreements last month to create safe shipping corridors for the Black Sea to export Ukraine’s much-needed agricultural products as Russia’s war against its neighbor continues.

Ukraine is a major global grain supplier, but the war had blocked most exports, so the July 22 deal was designed to facilitate food security around the world. World food prices have skyrocketed in a crisis attributed to war, supply chain problems and COVID-19.

Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Razoni’s journey an “important step”, no other ships have left Ukraine in the past 48 hours and no explanation has been given for the delay.

A UN statement said inspectors “obtained valuable information” from the crew of the Razoni about its journey through the Black Sea maritime humanitarian corridor and that the coordination center was “refining procedures”.

The Turkish Ministry of National Defense tweeted a photo of an inspector reaching into the hold of the Razoni and touching some of the 26,527 tons of corn for chicken feed. The Razoni’s horn sounded as the inspectors left the ship and then sailed to Lebanon.

The purpose of the controls is to ensure that outgoing cargo ships only carry grain, fertilizer or food and no other goods, and that incoming ships do not carry weapons.

An estimated 20 million tons of grain has been trapped in Ukraine since the start of the six-month-old war. Ukraine’s top diplomat said on Wednesday more ships are ready to carry much-needed grain and food from the country’s Black Sea ports.

“Further ships are already ready for departure. They will depart from the ports that are part of the grain initiative in accordance with the agreed schedule, and we hope that everything will work out and that the Russian Federation will not take any steps that would destroy these agreements,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. a joint press conference in Kiev with his Estonian counterpart.

Kuleba said the UN-backed deal is “beneficial to Ukrainian farmers, beneficial to the Ukrainian economy and beneficial to the world”.

″ It is now Ukraine that is literally saving the world from a further rise in food prices and from hunger in individual countries,” he said.

Still, a trip to the Black Sea carries significant risks because of the war. Two civilian ships hit explosives there last week near the Bystre estuary of the Danube, according to Bridget Diakun, a data reporter at Lloyd’s List, a global shipping publication.

Analysts say the authorities’ first priority is to release ships that have been stranded for months in the three Ukrainian ports covered by the agreement. According to Lloyd’s List, 16 ships full of grain have been stranded in the ports of Odessa and Chernomorsk since the Russian invasion.

Even slower than that is the effort to bring ships into Ukrainian ports to store the millions of tons of grain.

Insurance brokers are “cautious, slow, so far,” said David Osler, insurance editor at Lloyd’s List. “At this stage, everyone is hesitant.”

Grain stocks are expected to continue to grow. Despite the war, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal estimated that his country would harvest up to 67 million tons of grain this year, up from 60 million tons last year.

A senior official at a leading Ukrainian agricultural organization estimated that Ukraine would have about 50 million tons of grain for export this year.

Before the war, Ukraine exported about 5-6 million tons of grain per month, according to Denys Marchuk, the deputy head of the All-Ukrainian Agrarian Council. He said Ukrainian authorities hope to include more ports on the Black Sea in the export agreement.

In other news Wednesday:

__ Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referred to Russia as “number one” among global sponsors of terror, and called for the creation of a strengthened global security architecture “that will ensure that no state can ever again resort to terror against a other state.” In his late-night speech, Zelensky referred to the explosion at a prison in eastern Ukraine that killed more than 50 Ukrainian POWs and injured another 75 last week. Ukrainian and Russian officials have accused each other of deliberately destroying parts of the prison complex to cover up atrocities.

__ Russian troops continued their bombardment of the southern Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv. Regional Governor Vitaliy Kim said the shelling damaged a pier, an industrial company, residential buildings, a garage cooperative, a supermarket and a pharmacy. The mayor of Mykolaiv, Oleksandr Sienkevych, told The Associated Press that so far 131 civilians in the city have been killed by Russian shelling and 590 others have been seriously injured.

__ The Ukrainian army said Ukrainian forces pushed back more than a dozen Russian attacks in the main eastern province of Donetsk and claimed that none of Russia’s attempts to advance in the past 24 hours had been successful. Still, at least four civilians were killed in Russian shelling in Donetsk province, the Ukrainian presidential office said. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered evacuation of everyone in the disputed province as soon as possible.

__ The UN chief says he is appointing a fact-finding mission in response to requests from Russia and Ukraine to investigate an explosion at a POW prison in a separatist region of eastern Ukraine that reportedly killed 53 Ukrainian POWs and another 75 have been injured. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told reporters he does not have the authority to conduct criminal investigations, but is authorized to conduct fact-finding missions. Both sides said Friday’s attack was premeditated to cover up atrocities.

__ Moscow has drastically reduced the amount of gas it sends to Europe, fueling fears it could stop sending much-needed fuel. Across Europe, countries are rushing to cut energy consumption this summer so they can fill gas storage tanks for the cold winter ahead.

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Robert Badendieck and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Joanna Kozlowska in London and Edith Lederer in New York contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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