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Concerns around shipping Ukrainian grain


A new joint coordination center was inaugurated in Istanbul yesterday to oversee the export of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain now stuck at ports and warehouses. Getting Ukraine and Russia to consent to that hard-fought agreement was one thing. Actually moving the grain may be tougher still. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The endgame is to get roughly 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain into the global food chain, moving it from several Ukrainian ports across the Black Sea to Turkey, where it will be sent on to the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. The operation is logistically complicated and dangerous because it'll be happening in an active war zone.

OLEG GRYGORIUK: Who will guarantee the Ukrainian dockers and the ports that they will be in safety while they will do the loading operations on those vessels?

NORTHAM: Oleg Grygoriuk is the head of Ukraine's Marine Transport Workers Trade Union. He says there are serious concerns that Russia will launch missile attacks on Ukrainian ports. He points to what happened just after the agreement was signed.

GRYGORIUK: Straight after that, in 30 minutes, missiles came to Odesa port. I need much more solid guarantees because on the papers, it, like, looks nice and tidy. But in fact, we see what happens.

NORTHAM: But even before ships are loaded, they'll need to be thoroughly checked, says John Stawpert, who heads up security issues for the International Chamber of Shipping.

JOHN STAWPERT: There are ships in Ukrainian ports that have been there since February, and that will have had an impact on the seaworthiness, their ability to operate deep sea. So it's a case-by-case basis of whether those ships will be able to sail and when they'll be able to sail.

NORTHAM: Stawpert says it's believed some of the ships will be able to go as soon as the corridor is open. But there's the issue of ensuring safe passage for the vessels. The waters are riddled with Ukrainian mines. Stawpert says it's uncertain whether Ukraine has done any minesweeping but that the merchant ships will likely be escorted by Ukrainian warships.

STAWPERT: As far as we know, Ukraine will guarantee the safety of any ship transiting through the corridors, whether they need demining or not. There is always the risk of unmoored mines, so we would want assurances that the corridors will be regularly patrolled so that that threat is mitigated against.

NORTHAM: The success of the operation requires all sides to live up to their commitments - challenging when trust between Ukraine and Russia is tenuous. Any number of things, from miscommunications to mishaps, could lead to an attack from either side, which makes ensuring the ships challenging.

RICHARD MEADE: But there will be support for this initiative amongst the specialist war risk insurers, not least because it's clearly a humanitarian agreement here.

NORTHAM: Richard Meade is editor of Lloyd's List, a London-based shipping intelligence service.

MEADE: We know that it's quite likely that what we're going to see is a consortium of insurers essentially emerge over the coming days because it's going to be a risk that is probably going to be too big for any individual insurer. You're going to need to see a consortium cover for this one.

NORTHAM: Meade says right now, all sides appear to back the operation to move the Ukraine grain. There's an effort to get the first ship out in the next few days just to show that the operation is possible. If all goes well, it's expected regular shipments will take a couple of weeks to get started. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.