UK offers expertise in escort of Ukraine grain to avert starvation in Africa

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<span>Photograph: EPA</span>
Photograph: EPA

The UK is offering its expertise to help escort Ukraine’s grain from its ports under a UN plan designed to prevent a mass famine across Africa, the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has said in Ankara after meeting Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

Turkey has been trying to negotiate the terms of an escort for more than 20m tonnes of urgently needed Ukrainian grain, but Çavuşoğlu said he had not been able to secure a date for a meeting between Ukraine and Russia – a sign that an agreement on safe passage for the convoy had not been reached.

Boris Johnson in addition said the UK was willing to help with de-mining and providing insurance cover for the ships as western officials, locked in an increasingly ferocious blame game with Russia about responsibility for the grain blockade, warned the global food security crisis would last for another two years even if the war in Ukraine ended tomorrow.

“Even at the best of times, if tomorrow the war was over, we are still looking at a two-year crisis globally,” one official said.

Cary Fowler, the US Special Envoy for Global Food Security, said at a US briefing the crisis could last three years with some of its causes preceding the war.

The western officials admitted Russia is demanding assurances about sanctions on shipping in return for allowing the grain convoys to leave the Ukrainian port of Odesa and head through the Black Sea. They pointed out that the EU had offered to provide extra letters of comfort to confirm that Russian grain and fertiliser shipments were not subject to sanction.

The EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, pinned the blame for 60% price rises in some cases on Russia, but added “we are having a look at our sanctions in order to be sure that there is nothing that prevents exports of food and fertilisers from Russia”.

The US says it has also issued general licences exempting agricultural products including food and agriculture from sanctions.

Related: Russia-Ukraine war: what we know on day 120 of the invasion

Truss said: “It’s very clear that Ukrainian ports must be protected. There needs to be safe passage for commercial vessels. And the United Kingdom is offering our expertise on all of those fronts to make sure that we have the measures in place so that grain can safely leave, but it is going to require an international effort.”

No agreement has yet been reached on the details of how the grain convoys would be inspected to ensure they were not carrying arms for Ukraine. It has been accepted that the ships technically can safely leave the heavily mined ports by establishing safe routes through the mines. Clearance of the mines is seen as preferable, but not indispensable.

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Truss said on Thursday the UK supported the plan for a UN resolution to legitimise the convoy, but added: “Russia cannot be allowed to delay and prevaricate. It’s urgent that action is taken within the next month ahead of the new harvest.” The impasse has meant Ukraine’s existing silos are full and subject to attack by Russian missiles. Turkey has been offering to run a control centre in Istanbul from which the convoy operation could be jointly policed.

“Putin is weaponising hunger, he is using food security as a callous tool of war,” Truss said. “He has blocked Ukrainian ports, and is stopping 20m tonnes of grain being exported across the globe, holding the world to ransom.”

Failure to reach an agreement would have devastating consequences, she said, a reference to droughts already afflicting sub-Saharan Africa. A special food ministerial summit is due to be held in Berlin on Friday led by the US and designed to advance a longer-term humanitarian agenda on the food crisis

The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, is also in Turkey to discuss the British contribution to any convoy plan, as well to persuade Turkey to lift its current block on Sweden and Finland joining Nato over what Turkey categorises as a soft line on Turkish Kurdish terrorists operating in their countries.

So far there has been no breakthrough, although Turkey is pleased that a special session on threats to Nato on its southern flank will be included at the Nato summit, providing an opportunity for Ankara to raise the issue.

Çavuşoğlu said Sweden had provided papers to Turkey on what it was prepared to do to block the financing of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) from Sweden. The PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since the 80s and is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU.

The UK is a close ally of Turkey, and is trying to use its influence to persuade Ankara to shelve its objections to Swedish membership. Truss said Nato’s open-door policy must remain sacrosanct adding: “This is a moment for strength, for commitment and unity.”

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