KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Four more ships carrying agricultural cargo held up by the war in Ukraine received authorization Sunday to leave the country’s Black Sea coast as analysts warned that Russia was moving troops and equipment in the direction of the ports to stave off a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The body overseeing an international deal intended to get some 20 million tons of grain out of Ukraine to feed millions of impoverished people who are going hungry in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia said the loaded vessels were expected to depart Chornomorsk and Odesa on Monday.
Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the United Nations signed agreements last month to create a sea channel that would allow cargo ships to travel safely out of ports that Russia’s military had blockaded and through waters that Ukraine’s military had mined. Implementation of the deal, which is in effect for four months, has proceeded slowly since the first ship embarked last Monday.
For the last four months of the war, Russia has concentrated on capturing the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have controlled some territory as self-proclaimed republics for eight years. Russian forces have made gradual headway in the region bordering Russia while launching missile and rocket attacks to curtail the movements of Ukrainian fighters elsewhere.
Over the past day, five civilians were killed in Russian and separatist firing on cities in the Donetsk region, the part of Donbas still under Ukrainian control, the regional governor, Serhiy Haidai, reported. He and Ukrainian government officials repeatedly urged civilians to evacuate the province.
In a weekend analysis, Britain’s Defense Ministry said the Russian invasion that started February 24 “is about to enter a new phase” in which the fighting would shift west and south to a roughly 350-kilometer (217-mile) front line that extends from near the city of Zaporizhzhia 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 located 227 kilometers (141 miles) from Odesa, home to Ukraine’s biggest port, so the conflict escalating there could have repercussions for the international grain deal.
The city of Mykolaiv, an important shipbuilding center that comes under daily rocketing from Russian forces, is even closer to Odesa. The Mykolaiv region’s governor, Vitaliy Kim, said an industrial facility on the regional capital’s outskirts came under fire early Sunday.
On Saturday, Russian forces launched airstrikes, fired artillery, and redistributed other weaponry as part of attempts to defend their positions in occupied areas, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
Citing local Ukrainian officials, the institute said the Russians “are continuing to accumulate large quantities of military equipment” in a town across the Dnieper River from Kherson. The preparations appeared designed to defend logistics routes to the city and to establish defensive positions on the river’s left bank, the think tank said.
Ukrainian officials were initially skeptical of a grain export deal, citing suspicions that Moscow would try to exploit shipping activity to mass troops offshore or to send long-range missiles from the Black Sea, as it has done multiple times during the war. The agreements approved last month call for ships to leave Ukraine under military escort and to undergo inspections.
Under the agreements, ships leaving Ukraine are inspected by teams made up of officials from the three countries and the UN to make sure they carry only grain, fertilizer, or food and not any other commodities. Inbound vessels are checked to ensure they are not carrying weapons.
The Joint Coordination Center, which is responsible for managing the deal, said three cargo ships that left Friday were expected to pass through Turkey’s Bosporus Strait on Sunday after clearing inspections. The Panama-flagged Navi Star, which is carrying 33,000 tons of grain to Ireland, completed its inspection and was preparing to sail.
The Turkish-flagged Polarnet, which was headed for Turkey, and the Maltese-flagged Rojen, bound for the United Kingdom were waiting to be checked. The ships carried over 25,000 tons of corn between them.
The Joint Coordination Center said three of the carriers cleared to leave Ukraine on Monday – the Glory, the Star Helena, and the Riva Wind, all flagged in the Marshall Islands – were transporting more than 171,000 tons of corn combined.
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.
The fourth ship cleared for departure, the Liberia-flagged tanker Mustafa Necati, is carrying more than 6,600 tons of sunflower oil to Monopoli, Italy.
The center also authorized the first inbound ship under the agreement, saying the Liberia-flagged Osprey S would head Monday to Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port.
Marine traffic tracking sites showed the ship north of the Black Sea entrance to the Bosporus, where ships have waited for inspection teams to board.