Istanbul / Kyiv: Russia and Ukraine signed a landmark deal on Friday to reopen Ukrainian Black Sea ports for grain exports, raising hopes that an international food crisis aggravated by the Russian attack can be eased.
The accord crowned two months of talks brokered by the United Nations and Turkey which UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said were aimed at restoring Ukrainian grain exports while easing Russian grain and fertilizer shipments despite tough Western sanctions on Moscow.
Guterres said the deal, signed in Istanbul, opens the way to significant volumes of commercial food exports from three key Ukrainian ports " Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
"Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea. A beacon of hope..., possibility...and relief in a world that needs it more than ever," Guterres told the gathering.
But fighting raged on unabated in Ukraine's east and, underlining the enmity and mistrust driving the worst conflict in Europe since World War Two, Russian and Ukrainian representatives declined to sit at the same table and avoided shaking hands at the ceremony. The display of the two countries' flags was adjusted so that they were no longer next to one other.
Russia and Ukraine, both among the world's top exporters of food, sent their defence and infrastructure ministers respectively to Istanbul for the signing ceremony, also attended by Guterres and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan said the deal will help prevent famine and ease global food inflation, and called on Russia and Ukraine to end their conflict.Turkey, a NATO member that has good relations with Russia and Ukraine alike, controls the straits leading into the Black Sea.
A blockade of Ukrainian ports by Russia's Black Sea fleet, trapping tens of millions of tonnes of grain in silos and stranding many ships, has worsened global supply chain bottlenecks and, along with sweeping Western sanctions, stoked galloping inflation in food and energy prices around the world.
Moscow has denied responsibility for the worsening food crisis, blaming instead Western sanctions for slowing its own food and fertilizer exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its Black Sea ports.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Western nations would be watching closely to ensure the deal did not put Ukraine at risk of being further invaded by Russia.
"The G7 is working closely with partners like Turkey and others to ensure that we can get that grain out of Ukraine and to places around the world where it's needed without putting at risk Ukraine's sovereignty and protection," Trudeau said.
Speaking in Istanbul, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow would not seek to take advantage of the de-mining of Ukraine's ports.
"Russia has taken on the obligations that are clearly spelled out in this document. We will not take advantage of the fact that the ports will be cleared and opened," Shoigu said on the Rossiya-24 state TV channel.
Senior UN officials, briefing reporters on Friday, said the deal was expected to be fully operational in a few weeks and would restore grain shipments from the three reopened ports to pre-war levels of 5 million tonnes a month.
Safe passage into and out of the ports would be guaranteed in what one official called a "de facto ceasefire" for the ships and facilities covered, they said, although the word "ceasefire" was not in the agreement text.
Though Ukraine has mined nearby offshore areas as part of its defences against Russia's five-month-old attack, Ukrainian pilots would guide ships along safe channels in its territorial waters, they said.
Monitored by a Joint Coordination Centre based in Istanbul, the ships would then transit the Black Sea to Turkey's Bosphorus strait and proceed to world markets, UN officials said.
The deal will be valid for 120 days but renewable and would not be expected to be stopped any time soon.
A UN official said a separate pact signed on Friday would smooth Russian food and fertilizer exports and that the UN
welcomed US and European Union clarifications that their sanctions would not apply to such shipments.
The overall objective is to help avert famine among tens of millions of people in poorer nations by injecting more wheat, sunflower oil, fertilizer and other products into world markets including for humanitarian needs, partly at lower prices.
The United States welcomed the deal and said it was focusing on holding Russia accountable for implementing it.