Russia hits key Odesa port day after landmark grain deal: Ukraine

Russian missiles have hit infrastructure in Ukraine’s port of Odesa, a day after Russia and Ukraine signed a deal to reopen Black Sea ports, the Ukrainian military has said.

“The enemy attacked the Odesa sea trade port with Kalibr cruise missiles; two missiles were shot down by air defence forces; two hit the infrastructure of the port,” the Operational Command South wrote on Telegram on Saturday.

Public broadcaster Suspilne quoted the Ukrainian military as saying the missiles had not caused significant damage and a government minister said preparations continued to restart grain exports from Black Sea ports.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday brokered the agreement in a bid to resume grain exports and ease a global food crisis.

Odesa, the largest Ukrainian seaport and one of the largest ports in the Black Sea basin, has remained under Kyiv’s control, albeit being blockaded by Russia.

The signing of the deal on Friday – which includes Odesa as well as the ports of Yuzhne and Chornomorsk – has been hailed as a “beacon of hope” by the UN.

Guterres on Saturday “unequivocally” condemned the missile attacks on the port, which is key to the UN-brokered deal.

“The Secretary-General unequivocally condemns reported strikes today in the Ukrainian port of Odesa,” his deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement.

“Full implementation (of the deal) by the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Turkey is imperative,” he added.

However, Russia has denied any involvement in the missile strikes on Odesa, Turkey said on Saturday.

“In our contact with Russia, the Russians told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with this attack and that they were examining the issue very closely and in detail,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusai Akar said in a statement.

“The fact that such an incident took place right after the agreement we made yesterday really worried us.”

Ukrainian air force spokesperson Yuriy Ignat said the missiles were fired from warships in the Black Sea near Crimea.

Suspilne quoted Ukraine’s southern military command as saying the port’s grain storage area was not hit.

“Unfortunately there are wounded. The port’s infrastructure was damaged,” said Odesa region governor Maksym Marchenko.

But Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said on Facebook that “we continue technical preparations for the launch of exports of agricultural products from our ports”.

‘They are lying all the time’

Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian legislator representing Odesa, says Moscow is behind the missile attack and accused Russia of “lying”.

“They are lying all the time. Four missiles, the most powerful and the most precise of all Russian missiles, attacked Odesa,” Goncharenko told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC.

“It is clear who did it. Russia doesn’t want any grain deal. They want as much chaos as possible,” he said.

“They want people starving in North Africa and the Middle East and other regions. They want people to suffer and have social unrests and hunger riots. That’s why immediately after they signed the deal, they started to disrupt it,” he added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States strongly condemns the attack and said Russia bears responsibility for deepening the world’s food crisis.

The attack “undermines work of the UN, Turkey and Ukraine to get critical food to world markets” Blinken said in a statement.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell slammed what he called Russia’s “reprehensible” missile attack on Ukraine’s Odessa.

“Striking a target crucial for grain export a day after the signature of [the] Istanbul agreements is particularly reprehensible and again demonstrates Russia’s total disregard for international law and commitments,” he wrote on Twitter.

Analysts say it is unclear whether the Russian strike meant the deal was already over. “We hope not,” Hanna Shelest of the Ukrainian Prism think-tank told Al Jazeera from Odesa.

But the two missiles that landed in the port hit a grain depot, Shelest said, a clear sign that Russia is “bullying the international community” by showing disrespect for a deal it signed only yesterday.

The US ambassador to Kyiv, Bridget Brink, called the strike “outrageous”. “The Kremlin continues to weaponise food. Russia must be held to account,” Brink wrote on Twitter.

Russia and Ukraine are major global wheat suppliers and the war has sent food prices soaring. A global food crisis has pushed some 47 million people into “acute hunger”, according to the World Food Programme.

About $10bn worth of grain – roughly 20 million tonnes of last year’s harvest – are waiting to be exported.

Under the deal, a coalition of Turkish, Ukrainian and UN staff will monitor the loading of grain into vessels in Ukrainian ports before navigating a preplanned route through the Black Sea, which remains heavily mined by Ukrainian and Russian forces.

In a separate incident, 13 Russian missiles hit a military airfield and railway infrastructure in Ukraine’s central Kirovohrad region on Saturday, killing and wounding a number of people, the local governor said.

Governor Andriy Raikovych wrote on Telegram that rescue teams were working at the impact sites, and that one small district of the regional capital, Kropyvnytskyi, had been left without electricity by the strikes.

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