Russian freighter suspected of transporting Ukrainian grain is still stuck in Turkey

KARASU, Turkey | A Russian-flagged cargo ship at the center of a diplomatic battle between Kyiv and Moscow remained anchored off Turkey in the Black Sea for the fifth straight day on Tuesday, an AFP team found.

• Also read: Wheat, an essential crop and diplomatic weapon, is at the heart of the food crisis

• Also read: Moscow sends the first ship loaded with Ukrainian grain out of the occupied port

Ukraine, which has accused Russia of stealing its wheat crop, says the Zhibek Zholy, which left Ukraine’s port of Berdyansk under Russian occupation on Thursday, is loaded with 7,000 tons of illegally procured grain.

A Turkish diplomatic source told AFP on Tuesday that an “inspection” was underway on board.

A senior Turkish official source, who asked not to be identified, told AFP that “the problem arose from a vacuum of authority at the launch post”. “We continue to review the ship’s documents,” he added.

Moscow acknowledged on Monday that the freighter was sailing under the Russian flag, but denied any fault.

“We need to study the situation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters.

“The ship appears as Russian and sails under the Russian flag. I think it belongs to Kazakhstan and the first delivery was planned under a contract signed between Turkey and Estonia,” the minister continued.

Kazakh Industry Minister Kairbek Uskenbayev said the Zhibek Zholy, owned by Kazakhstan’s state railway company Temir Zholy (KTZ), was “rented”.

Despite pressure from Ukraine, NATO member Turkey has been silent about the ship since Friday.

Turkey is considered an ally of Ukraine, to which it supplies combat drones, but maintains a neutral stance towards Russia, on which it depends in particular for its gas supplies.

Many questions

On Friday, the Ukrainian embassy in Ankara asked Turkey to stop the Russian ship.

According to the specialist website Marine Traffic, the 140-meter-long cargo ship anchored about a kilometer off the port of Karasu, east of Istanbul.

Ukrainian Ambassador in Ankara Vasyl Bodnar told Ukrainian state television on Sunday that the ship was being detained by the Turkish Coast Guard.

“On Sunday, a boat (the Zhibek Zholy) approached and left,” Gulay Erol, a walker who met at a beach in Karasu from where the Russian cargo ship is visible, told AFP on Tuesday. “I don’t know why,” she added, without being able to say for sure whether the boat seen was a Turkish Coast Guard building.

Without reaching an agreement so far, for several weeks the UN has been negotiating with Moscow, Kyiv and Ankara – military guarantees of the use of the Black Sea for civilian ships – on an agreement that would allow grain to leave Ukraine safely and fertilizers out Russian production return to the international market.

In this regard, the UN says it fears new “hunger storms” under the influence of soaring food prices, which have been staggering since the start of the conflict in Ukraine.

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