The first shipment of Ukrainian grain since the Russian invasion in February left the port of Odesa on Monday morning under a landmark deal to lift Moscow’s naval blockade in the Black Sea.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres, who brokered the plan along with Turkey, welcomed the announcement while Kyiv said it would bring “relief for the world” if Moscow held up its side of the accord.
The five-month halt of deliveries from war-torn Ukraine — one of the world’s biggest grain exporters — has contributed to soaring food prices, hitting the world’s poorest nations especially hard.
Officials said the Razoni cargo ship, registered in Sierra Leone, was making its way through a specially cleared corridor in the mine-infested waters of the Black Sea with 26,000 tons of maize on board.
“It is expected in Istanbul on Aug. 2. It will then continue its journey after it has been inspected in Istanbul,” the Turkish foreign minister said in a statement.
Other convoys would follow, respecting the maritime corridor and the agreed formalities, the statement said.
Last month, Ukraine and Russia signed the breakthrough pact — the first signficant accord involving the warring sides since the invasion — with Turkey and the United Nations aimed at getting millions of tonnes of trapped Ukrainian grain to world markets.
But Russian strikes on the Odesa port the day after the deal was signed sparked outrage from Ukraine’s allies and cast doubt over the accord.
Guterres, according to a UN statement, “hopes that this will be the first of many commercial ships moving in accordance with the initiative signed, and that this will bring much-needed stability and relief to global food security, especially in the most fragile humanitarian contexts.”
Ships ‘waiting to leave’
“Ensuring that existing grain and foodstuffs can move to global markets is a humanitarian imperative,” he added.
Guterres also said that the World Food Programme was planning to “purchase, load and ship an initial 30,000 metric tons of wheat out of Ukraine on a UN-chartered vessel,” and there would be further details in the coming days.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Monday marked a “day of relief for the world, especially for our friends in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, as the first Ukrainian grain leaves Odesa after months of Russian blockade.”
The Kremlin on Monday hailed it as a “very positive” development and a “good opportunity to test the effectiveness of the mechanisms that were agreed during talks in Istanbul.”
The long-awaited consignment however is just the beginning of a backlog and Ukraine Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said 16 more ships were already “waiting for their turn” to leave Odesa.
“These are the ships that were blocked from the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion,” he said, adding that new requests for ships to dock and load were coming continuously.
“We are planning to reach full efficiency at of shipments of agricultural products during the following weeks,” he added.
The departure of the Razoni comes one day after Ukrainian agricultural magnate Oleksiy Vadatursky, 74, and his wife Raisa were killed when a missile struck their house in the battle-scarred city of Mykolaiv in the south.
Vadatursky owned major grain exporter Nibulon and was previously decorated with the prestigious “Hero of Ukraine” award.
Mykolaiv — which has been attacked frequently — is the closest Ukrainian city to the southern front where Kyiv’s forces are looking to launch a major counter-offensive to recapture territory lost after Russia’s February invasion.
The governor said Monday that three people had been injured in “massive” Russian shelling overnight that damaged homes and damaged humanitarian supplies.
Despite progress on the grain exports, there was also Russian shelling in the war-scarred east of the country, where Russian troops have been fighting deeper into the Donbas region.
The head of the industrial Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko said Russian shelling over the past 24 hours had killed three people.
The Razoni’s departure came after Russian authorities in the Crimean Black Sea peninsula — seized by Moscow from Ukraine in 2014 — said a small explosive device from a commercial drone, likely launched nearby, hit the navy command in Sevastopol.
The local mayor blamed “Ukrainian nationalists” for the attack that forced the cancellation of festivities marking Russia’s annual holiday celebrating the navy.
Ukraine’s navy accused Russia of staging the attacks as a pretext to cancel the festivities.