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Grain ship leaves Ukraine port for first time since Russia blockade

A ship carrying Ukrainian grain left the port of Odesa on Monday morning destined for Lebanon, the first since the start of the Russian invasion, according to Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry.

The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni, carrying 26,000 tons of corn, finally set sail after weeks of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, led by Turkey and the United Nations. Russia has been blockading Ukraine’s ports since the start of the war, stoking a worldwide grain shortage that has caused the UN to warn of looming hunger catastrophe.

Ukraine together with our partners has taken another step today in preventing world hunger,” Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, said in a statement on Monday.

Kubrakov stressed that Ukraine had done “everything” to restore the ports and that the lifting of the blockade would give Ukraine’s economy $1bn in foreign exchange revenue.

Turkey’s defense ministry said in a statement on Monday that more ships would follow as the procedures were now complete.

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest grain producers. About 20m tonnes of grain are reportedly stuck in Ukraine waiting to be exported. The blockade has caused a worldwide grain shortage and price rises, which pushed some countries that are reliant on grain imports, namely in the Middle East and Africa, towards famine.

Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said that there were 16 loaded vessels had been stuck in Ukraine’s ports since the Russian invasion began and that they planned for the ports to regain full transport capacity in the coming weeks.

But the world is watching to see if Russia sticks to its side if the bargain, following an attack on Odesa port a week ago.

Russia agreed to allow grain ships to leave Ukraine and not attack them in a deal that was signed on 22 July in Istanbul. But less than 24 hours later, the veracity of the deal was cast into doubt when Russian forces struck Ukraine’s Odesa port.

When questioned by Turkey’s defence minister, Russia at first denied it was involved in the attack. But the next day it issued a statement saying that it had struck a Ukrainian vessel carrying western weapons which was in the port. Ukraine’s authorities rejected Russia’s explanation.

The president of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, said he wanted to avoid “any actions that go against the spirit of the agreement”, adding that the failure to implement the agreement would be “disadvantageous to us all”. The US said Russia had undermined the credibility of its commitments and, shortly after, said it was working on a Plan B to export more grain from Ukraine using its rivers and rail.

Since the blockade, Ukraine has managed to export more than 4m tonnes of grain through the Danube river and its railways, but much work is needed to reach the prewar export levels of 6m to 8m tonnes a month, say experts.

Despite the attack, Kubrakov, who has been leading the deal’s implementation on the Ukrainian side, said the country would push ahead with preparations to begin exports. He hoped this would happen by the end of the week.

On Friday, Kubrakov met with the ambassadors of G7 countries, along with representatives from the UN and the European Union, at Odesa’s port.

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Kubrakov said that Ukraine had resolved all the technical questions on its side, provided the UN with several possible routes for ships and were awaiting the go-ahead from the UN.

Standing next to Kubrakov, ambassadors and representatives declared their hope that Russia would implement its side of the agreement, though questions remained over why Russia had chosen to attack the port.

They also met the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, earlier on Friday at Chornomorsk port, south of Odesa, where they observed a ship being loaded with grain.

“While someone, blocking the Black Sea, takes the lives of other countries, we are giving them the opportunity to survive,” Zelenskiy said.

Industry experts have said that finding insurers and crews ready to take the risk will be a big obstacle for the exports now and in the future.

On Friday, Lloyd’s of London insurer Ascot and broker Marsh announced that they had launched marine cargo and war insurance for grain and food products moving from the Black Sea ports.

The British ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, said that although the UK was not involved in the deal, it had helped in securing commercial insurance for the ships from providers in London. The announcement from Ascot signalled progress had been made.

Simmons said the port attack had worried insurance companies, but they should not be deterred. “The main thing is not to be scared of Russia’s tactics because that’s what they are – tactics, to stop this from happening,” she said.

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