First grain ship to depart Ukraine since war appears to dock in Syria

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The first grain-carrying ship to depart from Ukraine since the Russian invasion appears to have docked in the Syrian port of Tartus after it stopped transmitting its location signal early on Friday, according to satellite photographs.

“It seems in the end the first corn from Ukraine went to Syria, a strong ally of Russia,” said Yörük Işık, a geopolitical and maritime analyst based in Istanbul.

The Razoni has become one of the world’s most closely monitored vessels owing to its status as the inaugural ship to leave the port of Odesa under a UN-brokered deal. The agreement opened a humanitarian corridor allowing the passage of cargo ships carrying Ukrainian grain — stranded in the country’s ports since the start of the war — through the Black Sea to Istanbul.

Since setting sail at the start of this month, the ship’s destination has been the subject of much speculation. The 26,500 tonne cargo failed to reach its originally stated destination of Lebanon after the buyer rejected it on quality grounds.

The shipment was resold and, after unloading 1,500 tonnes of its cargo in Turkey, the vessel appeared to be heading to its next stated destination of Egypt. Then, on Friday, it stopped transmitting from its transponder, which broadcasts position and route information. The last signal was sent from the north-west coast of Cyprus.

According to images from Planet Labs, a satellite photography group, seen by the Financial Times, the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel appeared to dock at the port of Tartus in Syria on Monday. Tartus is the site of a Russian naval base. Satellite photos from the European Space Agency appeared to show the vessel anchored just outside Tartus on Saturday.

“The vessel stopped transmitting its signal on August 12 just east of Cyprus and was sighted heading towards the port that morning. She then spent a couple of days in anchorage before docking,” said Samir Madani, co-founder of TankerTrackers, a research company tracking maritime shipments.

Trading grain and food with Syria does not contravene western sanctions imposed on the Damascus regime over the country’s long-running civil war. But some vessels avoid sailing to the country openly because of the stipulations of financial institutions, according to grain traders.

The docking of the Razoni comes as the first maritime shipment of Ukrainian wheat for an operation run by the UN World Food Programme left Pivdennyi on Tuesday.

The shipment of 23,000 tonnes of wheat will form part of the WFP’s humanitarian response to the drought in the Horn of Africa. WFP executive director David Beasley said: “It will take more than grain ships out of Ukraine to stop world hunger, but with Ukrainian grain back on global markets we have a chance to stop this global food crisis from spiralling even further.”

Seventeen vessels have set sail from the Ukrainian ports covered by the UN-brokered grain deal — Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi.

The Razoni is known within the grain shipping industry as a vessel that moves regularly between the Mediterranean’s riskier ports, for example in countries affected by conflict. Photos from Planet Labs appear to show the Razoni calling at Syrian ports three times last year. At times it stopped sending transponder signals or “went dark”. 

Contact details for the Razoni are not available and the FT has been unable to reach the company or the vessel’s crew.

The UN-led Joint co-ordination Centre overseeing the deal said its responsibilities and role was to “monitor and observe the passage of commercial vessels through the maritime humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea to ensure their safety, as well as conduct inspections of vessels in Istanbul”, adding that after the outbound vessels cleared inspection in Istanbul it ceased to monitor them.

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