Ukraine says it seized cargo ship used for Crimea grain exports

Ukraine's naval forces have beaten back Russian attempts to blockade its ports (STRINGER)
Ukraine's naval forces have beaten back Russian attempts to blockade its ports (STRINGER)

Kyiv said Thursday that it had seized a foreign cargo ship and detained its captain, alleging that the vessel had illegally exported Ukrainian grain from the annexed Crimean peninsula.

Since Russia's capture of swaths of agricultural land in Ukraine in early 2022, Kyiv has accused Moscow of illegally harvesting and shipping grain produced on occupied territory to third countries.

The office of the prosecutor general in Ukraine said it had seized the vessel in the southern Odesa region, and that the ship had earlier exported agricultural products via Sevastopol -- a key Russian Black Sea naval hub in Crimea.

The waterway has become a fierce battleground of the war, and Ukraine has beaten back a formidable Russian naval blockade of its ports with a fleet of relatively cheap maritime drones.

The Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) said in a separate statement that it had detained the ship's captain, accusing him of violating rules on entering occupied territory.

It also claimed that the grain exported by the vessel -- Usko Mfu -- had been "looted" from southern Ukraine.

The charges against the capitan carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the SBU said, while prosecutors identified him as a citizen of Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet country in the South Caucasus.

- Shipments to Turkey -

Prosecutors said 12 other foreign crew members were on board at the time of the vessel's seizure, without elaborating on their nationality or whether they too would face charges.

The Cameroonian-flagged vessel illegally docked at Sevastopol in November 2023 and loaded more than 3,000 tonnes of agricultural products "intended" for a Turkish company, prosecutors said.

"To conceal the illegal activity, the ship's Automatic Identification System (AIS) was turned off before entering the port of Sevastopol, which is a gross violation of maritime safety requirements," their statement added.

Prosecutors said the ship returned to Sevastopol a second time in May this year.

It was seized at the Ukrainian port of Reni, they added, where they discovered documents issued by Sevastopol port authorities.

The port on the Danube in west Ukraine was one of several systematically targeted by Russian aerial attacks after Moscow last year scrapped a UN and Turkish brokered deal allowing Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea.

Igor Delanoe -- deputy director of the Franco-Russian Observatory -- said this was the first time Ukraine had seized an internationally-flagged vessel over the shipments.

- 'Sends a signal' -

"The signal is that they want to make third countries face up to their responsibilities," he told AFP.

"From the Ukrainian point of view, these countries are supporting Russia by their silence, while at the same time benefiting from grain that Ukrainians consider stolen," he added.

Prosecutors said later on state-television they had issued 21 warrants to seize cargo ships in absentia they believe have docked at Ukrainian ports under Russian occupation.

Igor Ponochovny, a Ukrainian official in the prosecutor's office working on issues related to the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russian forces in 2014, said the seizure was a "signal to countries that help Russia to circumvent sanctions."

The European Union in May imposed "prohibitive" duties on grain imports from Russia in a bid to cut off revenues to Moscow for its war on Ukraine.

The bloc's trade commissioner said the measure would "tackle illegal Russian exports of stolen Ukraine grain into EU markets".

The head of Ukraine's southern Kherson region, which the Kremlin claims is part of Russia, said Thursday that Russian forces caused fires on dozens of hectares of Ukrainian land growing grain.

He also said that Russian forces had struck a grain storage facility in the region and attacked firefighters who arrived to extinguish the fire with drones.