TOP STORIES Lebanon weighs in on Ukraine's claim that a moored...

Lebanon weighs in on Ukraine’s claim that a moored Syrian ship has stolen grain

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Lebanese authorities said on Friday they were investigating a Ukrainian allegation that a Syrian vessel under US sanctions that docked in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli was carrying Ukrainian grain stolen by Russia.

The cargo ship Laodicea, owned by the state transport company, arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday with almost 10 tons of wheat and barley. Shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian embassy notified the Lebanese authorities that they believed the grain had been stolen by Russia. Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has intervened in the country’s civil war to support him.

The Lebanese customs authority is checking the ship’s documents to determine if the cargo is under sanctions or if it has been stolen, according to Raymond El Khoury, the body’s director general. But he said that the Ukrainian embassy had not sent any evidence to support his claims, and that if no evidence was found that the grain had been stolen, it would be unloaded. It was not clear where the grain ended up tied up.

“We are still conducting our investigation,” Mr. El Khoury said. “I can’t play pirate and stop ships without evidence.”

At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Ukrainian Ambassador to Lebanon Igor Ostash said the vessel was on a list of 78 vessels whose involvement in the illegal transportation of stolen Ukrainian grain has been proven by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies. According to Mr. Ostash, on Friday a Ukrainian judge ordered the arrest of the Laodicea, along with the cargo on board.

In May, the United States warned that Russia was trying to profit from the looting of Ukrainian grain, which accounts for a tenth of the world’s wheat exports. Most of the stolen grain was taken to Russian-controlled ports in Crimea and then loaded onto Russian cargo ships, including some under Western sanctions, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing up to 500,000 tons of wheat worth $100 million since its invasion in February.

The Russian embassy in Lebanon told a local TV station that the Ukrainian allegations were false and said the ship was not affiliated with the Russian government.

Laodicea was under US sanctions since 2015, as part of a broad effort to pressure and isolate the Syrian government for its brutal actions during the civil war. According to detailed navigational data compiled by the maritime website MarineTraffic, the ship left the Turkish port of Izmir on July 7 and headed towards the Black Sea with stops at other Turkish ports.

The ship apparently turned off its satellite transmitter, and after a brief disappearance from the map on July 21, the Laodicea reappeared halfway across the Black Sea south to the Turkish straits of the Bosphorus.

Ukrainian authorities say the ship called at a Crimean port and was loaded with stolen Ukrainian grain when its transmitter was turned off and proceeded close to the Turkish coast past Cyprus before reaching Tripoli, Lebanon.

Vessels carrying Ukrainian grain used a number of tactics to mask their activities, including turning off transponders, according to former US Deputy Secretary of State James C. Glassman, spokesman for the Russian Piracy Research Initiative. a report investigation of Russian theft of Ukrainian grain and steel.

He said the Russians also mix their grain with Ukrainian to avoid sanctions. Russia and Ukraine grow different varieties of grain due to their climate, and when they are mixed, they are harder to tell apart.

Mr. El-Khoury said that since the Laodicea stopped at Turkish ports before arriving in Lebanon, the Turkish authorities would have arrested the ship if there were any problems with the grain. The Turkish government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Turkey mediated an agreement Ukraine and Russia signed last week to allow Ukrainian grain exports to resume.

Valerie Hopkins as well as Matina Stevis-Gridneff made a report.

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