A senior U.N. official said Wednesday that a deal to move stranded Ukrainian grain that had been blocked in silos and Black Sea ports is working well, with more than 370,000 tons of food stuffs moved in the first week.
"Three hundred and seventy-thousand metric tons in the initial phase of this operation, I think is a very encouraging sign," said Fred Kenney, the U.N. representative at the Istanbul-based Joint Coordination Centre, which oversees the deal.
The JCC has representatives from Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Nations. It was established under the July 22 Black Sea Grain Initiative, signed in Istanbul to monitor the safe movement of commercial ships to and from Ukraine's southern ports for the purpose of exporting food items to international markets.
More than two dozen ships have been stuck in Ukraine's ports since Russia invaded on February 24. A dozen have been authorized to sail or left so far.
"It is imperative upon us now, to get those ships out, so that we can bring ships in to load cargos that will be destined for ports that will contribute to reducing global food insecurity," said Kenney, who is also the director of legal affairs for the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency responsible for regulating the global shipping industry.
He told reporters in a video call from Istanbul that the JCC has seen a "tremendous willingness" from shippers to cross the Bosporus into the Black Sea to pick up grain cargo at the ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Pivdennyi (also known as Yuzhny) and that there are a number of empty grain vessels waiting in Turkish anchorages for contracts. Four ships have already been authorized to enter Ukraine's ports.
More than 20 million tons of grain await export to the world market. The U.N. says global grain prices have already started to drop since the initiative was signed nearly three weeks ago.
The JCC's role is to make sure ships transit safely along a demarcated humanitarian corridor as much of the Black Sea has been mined.
"Thus far, we haven't had any safety issues with any of the vessels that transited. None reported any floating hazards to navigation," Kenney told reporters.
The JCC also is tasked with looking for unauthorized personnel or cargo - be it food items not covered by the terms of the grain deal or illicit weapons.
"We haven't found anything that would violate the terms of the initiative," he confirmed.
Commercial ships leaving Ukraine have headed for destinations in Turkey, Britain, China, Ireland, Italy and South Korea, carrying loads of corn, soya, sunflower meal and sunflower oil. Kenney said the first ship that is coming in to pick up wheat has been cleared and should sail out next week.
He described the voyage from Odesa to Istanbul, saying it takes between a day and a half to two days. Inspections take between two to four hours at the Istanbul inspection area. From there vessels transit the Black Sea on a largely open route until they reach the Romanian-Ukrainian maritime border. Ships are forbidden to enter the humanitarian corridor from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. for visibility and safety reasons.
"We are looking at our procedures to see ways we can cut time on the inspection side without sacrificing the accuracy and the completeness of those inspections," he said.
The JCC also monitors ships to warn them of any military threats. Kenney said they can contact vessels immediately if there is action near the maritime humanitarian corridor and could order them to stop or turn around to avoid danger.