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Shift in war’s front seen as grain leaves Ukraine

The loaded vessels were cleared to depart from Chornomorsk and Odesa, the Joint Coordination Centre said (Nina Lyashonok/AP)
The loaded vessels were cleared to depart from Chornomorsk and Odesa, the Joint Coordination Centre said (Nina Lyashonok/AP)

Six more ships carrying agricultural cargo held up by the war in Ukraine received authorisation on Sunday to leave the country’s Black Sea coast as analysts warned that Russia was moving troops and equipment in the direction of the southern port cities to stave off a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukraine and Russia also accused each other of shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

The loaded vessels were cleared to depart from Chornomorsk and Odesa, according to the Joint Coordination Centre, which oversees an international deal intended to get some 20 million tons of grain out of Ukraine to feed millions going hungry in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations signed the agreements last month to create a 111-nautical-mile sea corridor 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 on August 1.

Four of the carriers cleared on Sunday to leave Ukraine were transporting more than 219,000 tons of corn. The fifth was carrying more than 6,600 tons of sunflower oil and the sixth 11,000 tons of soya, the Joint Coordination Centre said.

Three other cargo ships that left on Friday passed their inspections and received clearance on Sunday to pass through Turkey’s Bosporus Strait on the way to their final destinations, the Centre said.

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The loaded vessels were cleared to depart on Sunday (Nina Lyashonok/AP)

However, the vessel that left Ukraine last Monday with great fanfare as the first under the grain exports deal had its scheduled arrival in Lebanon delayed on Sunday, according to a Lebanese Cabinet minister and the Ukraine Embassy. The cause of the delay was not immediately clear.

Ukrainian officials were initially sceptical of a grain export deal, citing suspicions that Moscow would try to exploit shipping activity to mass troops offshore or send long-range missiles from the Black Sea, as it has done multiple times during the war.

The agreements call for ships to leave Ukraine under military escort and to undergo inspections to make sure they carry only grain, fertiliser or food and not any other commodities. Inbound cargo vessels are checked to ensure they are not carrying weapons.

In a weekend analysis, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said the Russian invasion that started on February 24 “is about to enter a new phase” in which the fighting would shift to a roughly 350km (217-mile) front line extending from near the city of Zaporizhzhia to Russian-occupied Kherson.

That area includes the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station which came under fire late on Saturday. Each side accused the other of the attack.

Ukraine’s nuclear power plant operator, Energoatom, said Russian shelling damaged three radiation monitors around the storage facility for spent nuclear fuels and that one worker was injured.

Russian news agencies, citing the separatist-run administration of the plant, said Ukrainian forces fired those shells.

Russian forces have occupied the power station for months. Russian soldiers there took shelter in bunkers before Saturday’s attack, according to Energoatom.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently warned that the way the plant was being run and the fighting going on around it posed grave health and environmental threats.

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 while launching missile and rocket attacks to curtail the movements of Ukrainian fighters elsewhere.

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A man takes a picture as the Glory bulk carrier makes its way from the port in Odesa, Ukraine (Nina Lyashonok/AP)

The Russians “are continuing to accumulate large quantities of military equipment” in a town across the Dnieper River from Russian-held Kherson, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Citing local Ukrainian officials, it said the preparations appeared designed to defend logistics routes to the city and establish defensive positions on the river’s left bank.

Kherson came under Russian control early in the war and Ukrainian officials have vowed to retake it. It is just 227km (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, a shipbuilding centre that Russian forces bombard daily, 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 on Sunday.

Over the past day, five civilians were killed by 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 have repeatedly urged civilians to evacuate.