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Zelenskyy visits port as Ukraine prepares to ship grain

ODESA, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited a Black Sea port on Friday as crews prepared terminals to export grain trapped by Russia’s five-month war, work advancing a week after the conclusion of an agreement to enable the critical food supply. millions of poor people facing hunger around the world.

“The first ship, the first ship has been loaded since the beginning of the war,” Zelenskyy said at a port in the Odessa region.

He said, however, that the departure of wheat and other grains will begin with several ships already loaded but unable to leave Ukrainian ports after Russia invaded in late February. Ukraine is a key global exporter of wheat, barley, maize and sunflower oil, and the loss of these supplies has pushed up global food prices, threatened political instability and contributed to a further plunge people in poverty and hunger in already vulnerable countries.

The Ukrainian military is committed to ship safety, Zelenskyy said, adding that “it is important for us that Ukraine remains the guarantor of global food security.”

His unannounced visit to the port is part of a wider campaign by Ukraine to show the world that it is almost ready to export millions of tonnes of grain after last week’s groundbreaking agreements, which were brokered by the Turkey and the United Nations and signed separately by Ukraine. and Russia.

The parties agreed to facilitate the shipment of wheat and other grains from three Ukrainian ports through safe corridors on the Black Sea, as well as fertilizers and food from Russia.

But a Russian missile strike on Odessa hours after the deal was signed has challenged Moscow’s commitment and raised new concerns about the safety of the ships’ crews, who also have to navigate mine-strewn waters. explosive.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed on Friday the importance of maintaining a “link between the withdrawal of grain from Ukrainian ports and the unblocking of direct or indirect restrictions on the export of our grain, fertilizers and other goods to world markets”.

Security concerns and the complexity of the deals triggered a slow and cautious start, with no grain yet leaving Ukrainian ports. The parties face a countdown – the agreement is only valid for 120 days.

The goal over the next four months is to get some 20 million tonnes of grain out of three Ukrainian seaports blocked since the February 24 invasion. This gives time for about four to five large bulk carriers a day to transport grain from ports to millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, who are already facing food shortages and, in some cases, starvation.

The movement of wheat and other food is also essential for Ukrainian farmers, who lack storage capacity in the midst of a new harvest.

“We are ready,” Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov told reporters at the port of Odessa on Friday.

But he said Ukraine is waiting for the UN to confirm the safe corridors that will be used by vessels sailing through the waters. Meanwhile, a ship from the port of Chernomorsk was loaded with grain, he said.

Martin Griffiths, the UN official who brokered the agreements, warned that work was still underway to finalize the exact coordinates of the safest routes, saying this needed to be “absolutely nailed down”.

Lloyd’s List, a global maritime news publisher, noted on Friday that while UN officials push for the initial voyage this week to show progress on the deal, continued uncertainty over key details is likely to prevent a immediate increase in shipments.

“Until these logistical issues and detailed outlines of backup procedures are released, charters will not be agreed and underwriters will not underwrite shipments,” wrote Bridget Diakun and Richard Meade of Lloyd’s List.

They note, however, that United Nations agencies, such as the World Food Programme, have already made arrangements to charter much of the grain for urgent humanitarian needs.

Since the agreement was signed a week ago, shipping companies have been in no rush as explosive mines drift in the waters, shipowners are assessing the risks and many are still wondering how the deal will unfold.

Ukraine, Turkey and the UN are trying to show action on the agreement signed a week ago. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Al Jazeera on Thursday that “the agreement has started in practice” and that the first ship to leave Ukraine with grain is expected to leave “very soon”.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed similar optimism during a press briefing, calling the deal a significant step forward between the warring parties.

“This is not just a step forward in removing barriers to exporting food. If implemented successfully, it will be a serious confidence-building measure for both sides,” he said.

The agreement stipulates that Russia and Ukraine will provide “maximum assurances” to ships that brave the journey across the Black Sea to the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.

For vessels heading to the three Ukrainian ports, smaller Ukrainian pilot boats will guide vessels through the approved lanes. The whole operation will be overseen by a joint coordination center in Istanbul made up of Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and United Nations officials.

Once the ships reach the port, they will be loaded with tens of thousands of tons of grain before heading back to the Bosphorus Strait, where they will be embarked to inspect them for weapons. There will probably also be inspections for vessels embarking for Ukraine.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; and Edith M. Lederer of the United Nations contributed to this report.