Lebanon clears ship accused of carrying stolen Ukrainian grain for departure

·3-min read

By Timour Azhari and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Transport authorities have allowed a ship Ukraine accuses of carrying stolen grain to depart Lebanon despite the Ukrainian embassy asking Beirut to reopen a probe into the matter after presenting what it said was new evidence.

Lebanese Transport Minister Ali Hamie told Reuters on Wednesday afternoon that port authorities in the northern city of Tripoli had cleared the ship to depart.

A tweet from his account said the decision was "in accordance with Lebanese legal principles, based on our sovereignty over our land, sea and sky."

Earlier on Wednesday, Ukraine had asked Lebanon's top prosecutor to reopen a probe into the Syrian-flagged ship, the Laodicea, which it says is carrying some 10,000 tonnes of flour and barley plundered by Russia following its February invasion.

Ukraine's ambassador to Lebanon, Ihor Ostash, told a news conference at the embassy near Beirut that the request to investigate further was based on new evidence gathered by a Ukrainian judge and handed over to Lebanon on Monday.

The Lebanese prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, lifted a first seizure order on the Laodicea, issued last week, on Tuesday after finding no criminal offence committed.

A judge in Tripoli told Reuters that a second 72-hour seizure order issued on Monday was no longer in place and the ship could now depart.

Moscow has previously denied stealing grain. Russia's Embassy in Lebanon said it had no information on the vessel or the cargo, which was shipped to Lebanon by a private company.

An official from the company that owns the cargo has also denied it was stolen and said the ship was bound for nearby Syria.

Ukrainian authorities say the Laodicea travelled to a port in Russian-occupied Crimea closed to international shipping, taking on cargo before sailing to Lebanon.

Among the new information presented by Ukraine's embassy, satellite imagery - also provided to Reuters - shows the Laodicea in the Crimean port of Feodosia on July 14. Photos, again seen by Reuters, show the ship in the same spot from July 9 to July 20.

During that period, its load line - which indicates the depth to which it can be safely loaded with cargo - sinks to water-level, indicating it has taken on a heavy load.

The ship arrived in Lebanon on July 27, where open-source information showed it remained on Wednesday night.

Ukraine's embassy also noted that the Russian cargo manifest states that the Laodicea, which has a maximum draft of eight meters, sailed from the Russian port of Kavkaz, but open-source shipping information, independently checked by Reuters, indicates Kavkaz can only accept ships with a maximum draught of five meters.

An image of a sack of wheat flour aboard the Laodicea the embassy said it had obtained on Wednesday indicated a Crimea-based company is the manufacturer.

The shipping company that owns the ship could not immediately be reached for comment.

Ostash said Ukraine had offered to sell Lebanon the Laodicea's entire cargo at around half its international price, should Lebanon seize it.

He added that a ship carrying 26,000 tons of corn, the first carrying Ukrainian grain to leave its Black Sea ports with cargo for international markets since Russia's invasion, would arrive in Lebanon within four to five days.

He said Ukraine remained committed to supporting Lebanon with grain shipments as Lebanon deals with shortages of basic goods including wheat amid a three-year financial collapse.

Ukraine accuses Russia of stealing around half a million tonnes of grain from areas it has occupied, and says it has traced 78 vessels involved in the transfer of the stolen grain.

(Reporting by Timour Azhari and Laila Bassam, additional reporting by Maya Gebeily; Writing by Lina Najem and Timour Azhari; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Andrew Cawthorne, Kirsten Donovan)

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