Shift in war front seen as ships cleared to leave Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Four more ships carrying agricultural cargo held up by the war in Ukraine was given permission to leave the Black Sea coast on Sunday as analysts warned that Russia was moving troops and equipment toward the ports to avert a Ukrainian counter-offensive.

The agency overseeing an international deal that aims to get some 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine and feed millions of poor people who are starving in Africathe Middle East and parts of Asia said the loaded ships were expected to depart Chornomorsk and Odessa on Monday.

Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations signed agreements last month to create a sea channel through which cargo ships can travel safely out of ports blocked by the Russian military and through waters mined by the Ukrainian military. Implementation of the deal, which has been in effect for four months, has been slow since the first ship embarked last Monday.

During the last four months of the war, Russia has concentrated on conquering the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have controlled a certain area as self-declared republics for eight years. Russian forces have made gradual progress in the region bordering Russia, launching rockets and missile strikes to curtail the movements of Ukrainian fighters elsewhere.

Over the past day, five civilians were killed in Russian and separatist shelling against towns in the Donetsk region, the part of Donbas still under Ukrainian control, regional governor Serhiy Haidai reported. He and Ukrainian government officials have repeatedly urged civilians to evacuate the province.

In a weekend analysis, the British Ministry of Defense said the Russian invasion that began on Feb. 24 is “about to enter a new phase” in which the combat shift would shift west and south to a front line of about 350 kilometers (217 miles). miles) stretching from near the city of Zaporizhia to Russian-occupied Kherson.

Kherson, located on the Dnieper River near its mouth with the Black Sea, came under Russian control early in the war, and Ukrainian officials have vowed to retake it. Kherson is 227 kilometers (141 miles) from Odessa, home to Ukraine’s largest port, so the conflict escalating there could affect the international grain deal.

The city of Mykolaiv, an important shipbuilding center that is shelled daily by Russian troops, is even closer to Odessa. The governor of the Mykolaiv region, Vitaliy Kim, said an industrial facility on the outskirts of the regional capital came under fire early on Sunday.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, Russian troops launched airstrikes on Saturday, fired artillery and redistributed other weapons as part of efforts to defend their positions in occupied territories.

Citing local Ukrainian officials, the institute said the Russians “continue to collect large amounts of military equipment” in a town across the Dnieper River from Kherson. The preparations seemed intended to defend the logistics routes into the city and to take defensive positions on the left bank of the river, the think tank said.

Ukrainian officials were initially skeptical of a grain export deal, suspecting Moscow would try to exploit shipping activities to mass troops offshore or send long-range missiles from the Black Sea, as it did several times during the war. Agreements approved last month require ships under military escort to leave Ukraine and undergo inspections.

Under the agreements, ships leaving Ukraine will be inspected by teams made up of officials from the three countries and the UN to ensure they are only carrying grain, fertilizer or food and no other goods. Incoming ships are checked to make sure they have no weapons on board.

The Joint Coordination Center, which is responsible for managing the deal, said three cargo ships that departed Friday were expected to sail through the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey on Sunday after approval of the inspections.. The Panama-flagged Navi Star, carrying 33,000 tons of grain to Ireland, completed its inspection and was preparing to set sail.

Turkish-flagged Polarnet, en route to Turkey, and Maltese-flagged Rojen, en route to the United Kingdom, were waiting to be checked. The ships, which were carrying more than 25,000 tons of corn, were waiting to be checked. T

The Joint Coordination Center said three of the carriers allowed to leave Ukraine on Monday — the Glory, the Star Helena and the Riva Wind, all under the Marshall Islands flag — together carried more than 171,000 tons of corn. The Glory is destined for Istanbul, the Star Helena to Nantong in China and the Riva Wind to Turkey’s Iskenderun port on the Mediterranean Sea.

The fourth vessel cleared for departure, the Liberian tanker Mustafa Necati, is carrying more than 6,600 tons of sunflower oil to Monopoli, Italy.

The center also authorized the first incoming ship under the agreement, saying the Liberia-flagged Osprey S would go to the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk on Monday. Marine traffic tracing locations showed the ship north of the Black Sea entrance to the Bosphorus, where ships have been waiting for inspection teams to board.


Andrew Wilks contributed from Istanbul.


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