By ZEYNEP BILGINSOY
ISTANBUL (AP) — The first grain ship to leave Ukraine and cross the Black Sea under a wartime deal passed inspection Wednesday in Istanbul and headed on to Lebanon. Ukraine said 17 other vessels were “loaded and waiting permission to leave,” but there was no word yet on when they could depart.
A joint civilian inspection team spent three hours checking the cargo and crew of the Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni, which left Odesa on Monday carrying Ukrainian corn, a U.N. statement said.
The Joint Coordination Center team included officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, who signed deals last month to create safe Black Sea shipping corridors to export Ukraine’s desperately needed agricultural products as Russia’s war upon its neighbor grinds on.
Ukraine is a major global grain supplier but the war had blocked most exports, so the July 22 deal aimed to ease food security around the globe. World food prices have been soaring in a crisis blamed on the war, supply chain problems and COVID-19. Mistrust between Kyiv and Moscow has kept a cloud over the deal, which lasts for 120 days but can be renewed.
Although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Razoni’s journey a “significant step,” no other ships have left from Ukraine in the past 48 hours and officials on all sides have given no explanations for that delay.
A U.N. statement said three Ukrainian ports are due to resume exports of millions of tons of wheat, corn and other crops. It said inspectors “gained valuable information” from the Razoni’s crew about its voyage through the Black Sea maritime humanitarian corridor.
The Joint Coordination Center is “fine tuning procedures and processes,” it said.
Pictures tweeted by the Turkish Ministry of National Defense showed an inspector reaching into the Razoni’s open hold and touching the grain. The Razoni’s horn rang out as the inspectors left the ship. The Razoni, carrying 26,527 tons of corn for chicken feed, then headed to Lebanon.
The checks seek to make sure that outbound cargo ships carry only grain, fertilizer or related food items and not any other commodities, and that inbound ships are not carrying weapons.
An estimated 20 million tons of grain — most of it said to be destined for livestock — has been stuck in Ukraine since the start of the 6-month-old war. The U.N.-brokered agreement provided for the establishment of safe corridors through the mined waters outside Ukraine’s ports.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says the resumption of grain exports will reduce Russia’s ability to extract concessions from the West. “They are losing one of the opportunities to terrorize the world,” he said in his nightly video address late Tuesday.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has also disrupted energy supplies in western Europe, with Moscow drastically cutting how much it sends amid fears it could stop sending any at all.
Meanwhile, the U.N. nuclear chief warned that Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine “is completely out of control” and urgent steps are needed to avoid a nuclear accident. He issued an urgent plea to Russia and Ukraine to quickly allow experts to visit the sprawling complex.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press that the situation is getting more perilous every day at the Zaporizhzhia plant in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Enerhodar, which Russian troops seized in early March.
“Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” at the plant, he said. “What is at stake is extremely serious and extremely grave and dangerous.”
Meanwhile, Russian forces kept up their bombardment of the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, hitting it with shells twice over the past 24 hours — around 9 p.m. on Tuesday and 5 a.m. on Wednesday, Mykolaiv regional governor Vitaliy Kim reported.
The shelling damaged a pier, an industrial enterprise, residential buildings, a garage cooperative, a supermarket and a pharmacy, Kim said.
Mykolaiv is a southern port city on the Black Sea. The Russians said in April they wanted control over not just eastern, but southern Ukraine, cutting off the country from its Black Sea coast and creating a possible land corridor to the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria.
The mayor of Mykolaiv, Oleksandr Sienkevych, told The Associated Press that 131 civilians, including a child, have died so far in the city from Russian rocket and artillery shelling and another 590 others were seriously injured, including seven children.
In eastern Ukraine, Russian shelling killed at least four civilians in Donetsk province in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said Wednesday. Amid the relentless onslaught by Moscow’s forces, Zelenskyy issued an order to all those remaining in the embattled province to evacuate as soon as possible.
Robert Badendieck and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine