By Natalia Zinets
KYIV (Reuters) – A ship carrying grain left the Ukrainian port of Odesa for Lebanon on Monday under a safe passage agreement, Ukrainian and Turkish officials said, the first departure since the Russian invasion blocked shipping through the Black Sea five months ago.
Ukraine’s foreign minister called it “a day of relief for the world”, especially for countries threatened by food shortages and hunger because of the disrupted shipments.
The sailing was made possible after Turkey and the United Nations brokered a grain-and-fertiliser export agreement between Russia and Ukraine last month – a rare diplomatic breakthrough in a conflict that is grinding on with no resolution in sight.
“The first grain ship since #RussianAggression has left port,” Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said. “Today Ukraine, together with its partners, makes another step to prevent world hunger.”
The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni will head to Lebanon after transiting through the Bosporus Strait.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has led to a worldwide food and energy crisis and the United Nations has warned of the risk of multiple famines this year.
Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat exports. But Western sanctions on Russia and fighting along Ukraine’s eastern seaboard had prevented grain ships safely leaving ports.
The deal aims to allow safe passage for grain shipments in and out of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter: “The 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.”
Moscow has denied responsibility for the food crisis, blaming Western sanctions for slowing exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its ports. The Kremlin called Razoni’s departure “very positive” news.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the vessel would anchor off Istanbul on Tuesday afternoon and be inspected by a joint team of Russian, Ukrainian, United Nations and Turkish representatives.
“It will then continue as long as no problems arise,” Akar said.
Ukrainian presidential officials have said 17 ships are docked in Black Sea ports with almost 600,000 tons of cargo, mostly grain. More ships would follow, Kubrakov said.
A junior engineer on the vessel, Abdullah Jendi, said all the crew were happy to be moving after their prolonged stay in Odesa. He had not seen his family in more than a year, said Jendi, who is Syrian.
“It is an indescribable feeling to be returning to my home country after suffering from the siege and the dangers that we were facing due to the shelling,” he told Reuters. “The great fear knowing that at any moment something could happen to us because of the airstrikes.”
Of the voyage ahead, he said: “I am scared from the fact that there are naval mines. We need around two to three hours to exit regional waters. We hope that nothing will happen and that we will not commit any mistake.”
The US Embassy in Kyiv welcomed the shipping resumption, saying: “The world will be watching for continued implementation of this agreement to feed people around the world with millions of tons of trapped Ukrainian grain.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he hoped it would be the first of many such shipments.
BOMBARDMENTS IN SOUTH AND EAST
Despite the breakthrough on the grain shipments, the war of attrition continued elsewhere.
Three civilians were killed by Russian shelling in Donetsk region – two in Bakhmut and one in nearby Soledar – in the last 24 hours, regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
An industrial city and transport hub, Bakhmut has been under Russian bombardment for the past week as the Kremlin’s forces try to occupy all of Donetsk.
It is connected to the towns of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk in Luhansk region, which is almost all occupied by Russia. Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said the road was crucial for delivering weapons to Ukrainians fighting in Sievierodonetsk and evacuating people from that area.
Russian strikes also hit Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second biggest city and located near the border with Russia – on Monday, regional governor Oleh Synegubov said. Two civilians were wounded, he said.
After failing to quickly capture the capital Kyiv early in the war, Russia has turned its forces on Ukraine’s east and south and has been aiming to capture the Donbas region, made up of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia has been transferring some forces from the Donbas to the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Kyiv says Moscow is seeking to do the same with the Donbas and link it to Crimea in the south. Russian-backed separatists controlled parts of the region before the invasion.
Russia invaded Ukraine in what it called a “special operation” to demilitarize its neighbor. Ukraine and Western nations have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war.
Russian missiles on Sunday pounded Mykolaiv, a port city on the River Bug estuary off the Black Sea that borders the mostly Russian-occupied Kherson region.
Mykolaiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said more than 12 missile strikes hit homes and schools, with two people confirmed killed and three wounded.
Ukrainian grain tycoon Oleksiy Vadatursky, founder and owner of agriculture company Nibulon, and his wife were killed in their home, Mykolaiv Governor Vitaliy Kim said.
(Reporting by George Sargent, Anna Lubowicka, Bushra Shakhshir and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Michael Perry and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Nick Macfie)