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A Russian-flagged ship carrying thousands of tonnes of grain is being held and investigated by Turkish authorities in the Black Sea port of Karasu over claims its cargo was stolen from Ukraine.
Turkish customs officials acted after Kyiv claimed the Zhibek Zholy was illegally transporting 7,000 tonnes of grain out of Russian-occupied Berdiansk, a Ukrainian port in the south-east of the country.
Officials in Karasu said the ship was waiting off port while inquiries were undertaken into the provenance of the shipment.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, confirmed that the ship was Russian-flagged, but appeared to muddy the waters while claiming the Kremlin was seeking clarity on Monday.
“The ship really is Russian-flagged, but I think it belongs to Kazakhstan and the cargo was being carried on a contract between Estonia and Turkey,” Lavrov told reporters.
Kyiv has accused Russia of stealing grain from occupied Ukrainian territory to sell on the international markets. The country’s grain exports are responsible for almost 15% of the world’s total.
The case of the Zhibek Zholy has brought claims of theft into sharp focus and put the Turkish government in a sensitive position as it continues to seek a mediating role between Moscow and Kyiv over the issue of global food supply.
The voyage of the Zhibek Zholy had been proudly announced by the Moscow-appointed head of the occupied Zaporizhzhia region, where the port of Berdiansk lies, as the “first commercial ship” to take supplies out of Russian-controlled ports since the war began.
The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general subsequently wrote to Turkey’s justice ministry on 30 June, claiming the Zhibek Zholy was involved in the “illegal export of Ukrainian grain” and that it was headed to Karasu.
Turkey was asked to “conduct an inspection of this sea vessel, seize samples of grain for forensic examination, demand information on the location of such grain”.
Speaking on Ukrainian national television on Sunday, the country’s ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, had said he hoped the grain would be confiscated.
He said: “We have full cooperation. The ship is currently standing at the entrance to the port. It has been detained by the customs authorities of Turkey.”
The difficulty of identifying the origins of the grain remains real, however. The Russian-appointed administrations in occupied territories also claim that they are working in partnership with local farmers to release grain into the global market.
On Tuesday, authorities installed by Russia in the south-eastern Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine announced an agreement to sell grain to Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Russian news agency Tass quoted Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the administration, saying that Russian agricultural traders and state companies were buying grain from the region’s farmers.
“The prices are not bad at the moment,” Balitsky told the news agency. “A farmer gets around $200 per tonne of grain, which is great, because his cost of production is around $120, even taking into account the long storage time, which was forced.”