Russia and Ukraine extend grain deal to help world's poor
A deal that allowed grain to flow from Ukraine to countries where hunger is a growing threat has been extended just before it was due to expire.
The United Nations and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the extension, although neither confirmed how long it would last.
The UN, Turkey and Ukraine had pushed for 120 days, while Russia said it was willing to agree to 60 days.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov tweeted on Saturday that the deal would remain in effect for the longer, four-month period.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, however, told Russian news agency Tass that Moscow “agreed to extend the deal for 60 days.”
“Any claim that it’s prolonged for more than 60 days is either wishful thinking or deliberate manipulation,” Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, said.
Ukraine and Russia are both major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other affordable food products that developing nations depend on.
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Two ships carrying more than 96,000 metric tonnes of corn left Ukrainian ports on Saturday, bound for China and Tunisia, according to UN data.
This is the second renewal of the separate agreements that Ukraine and Russia signed with the United Nations and Turkey to allow food to leave the Black Sea region after Russia invaded its neighbour last year.
Russia has complained that shipments of its fertilisers — which its deal with Turkey and the UN was supposed to facilitate — are not getting to global markets, which has been an issue for Moscow since the agreement first took effect in August.
It nonetheless was renewed in November for another four months.
Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said in a statement that 25 million metric tonnes of grain and foodstuffs had moved to 45 countries under the initiative, helping to bring down global food prices and stabilising markets.
“We remain strongly committed to both agreements and we urge all sides to redouble their efforts to implement them fully,” Mr Dujarric said.
The war in Ukraine sent food prices surging to record highs last year and helped contribute to a global food crisis also tied to lingering effects of the Covid pandemic and climate factors like drought.
The disruption in shipments of grain needed for staples of diets in places like Egypt, Lebanon and Nigeria exacerbated economic challenges and helped push millions more people into poverty or food insecurity.
People in developing countries spend more of their money on basics like food. The crisis left an estimated 345 million people facing food insecurity, according to the UN’s World Food Program.
Food prices have fallen for 11 straight months, but food was already expensive before the war because of droughts from the Americas to the Middle East — most devastating in the Horn of Africa, with thousands dying in Somalia.
Poorer nations that depend on imported food priced in dollars are spending more as their currencies weaken.
The agreements also faced setbacks since it was brokered by the UN and Turkey: Russia pulled out briefly in November before rejoining and extending the deal.
In the past few months, inspections meant to ensure ships only carry grain and not weapons have slowed down.
That has helped lead to backlogs in vessels waiting in the waters of Turkey and a recent drop in the amount of grain getting out of Ukraine.