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Over 130 grain ships stranded in Black Sea as talks begin in Istanbul |  Ukraine

A traffic jam of more than 130 cargo ships loaded with Ukrainian grain waits in the Black Sea to cross into the Danube as negotiators from Moscow, Kyiv, the UN and Turkey begin talks in Istanbul on easing Ukrainian agricultural exports .

Vessels wait to access exit routes through the Sulina and Bystre estuary canals to reach a series of ports and terminals in Romania from where grain can be transhipped to global destinations, amid the l growing global concern over the Russian blockade of Ukrainian exports via the Black Sea.

Maritime tracking services have shown a jam of ships waiting to cross the Danube since a second route through the Bystre estuary was opened after the recent Russian withdrawal from nearby and strategic Zmiinye. [Snake] Island, which had threatened shipping near Odessa.

Previously, ships could only enter the Danube through the Sulina Canal, the passage of which is one-way, with cargo ships having to wait weeks to cross the canal.

Although large carriers cannot cross the Bystre estuary, limiting the amount of grain that can be exported, Ukrainian officials said already 16 ships had transited the Bystre route in the past four days since its reopening.

With mined ports and a Russian blockade on Ukraine’s southern coast limiting maritime traffic, the northern branch of the Danube Delta, which follows Ukraine’s southern border, and smaller river ports have taken on global importance in amid famine warnings in parts of Africa as grain from Ukraine was kept off the international market and prices soared.

Until recently, the Bystre Estuary road was closed, but this changed with the withdrawal of Russian forces from Snake Island.

“In view of the liberation of the island of Zmiinyi from Russian troops and the accumulation of a large number of ships waiting to cross the Sulina channel, it is possible to use the channel of the Bystry estuary from the Danube-Black Sea waterway for entry/exit of vessels carrying agricultural products,” the Seaports Administration of Ukraine said in a statement over the weekend.

Ukrainian officials hope the new grain export route will export an additional 500,000 tonnes, although this is still far from the amount of grain exported before the Russian invasion.

The capacity of the new routes is “currently insufficient to fully replace seaports”, Ukrainian officials noted. In June, Ukraine exported around 2.5 million metric tons of goods, well below the 8 million metric tons it had hoped to export, the infrastructure ministry added.

Ukraine is the world’s largest wheat exporter and supplies 9% of the world market. It also represents 42% of the sunflower oil market and 16% of world corn production.

Due to Russia’s blockade of Black Sea ports and a plethora of mines along the coast, 20-25 million tons of wheat are stuck in Ukraine, driving up world grain prices.

The opening of the new road came as Russia and Ukraine met with UN and Turkish officials on Wednesday to try to break a months-long stalemate over grain exports.

The high-stakes meeting in Istanbul came as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed no signs of abating and the sides remained locked in a furious long-range fire battle that destroyed cities and left people with nothing.

The first face-to-face discussions between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations since another meeting in Istanbul on March 29 come as the threat of food shortages spreads in the world’s poorest regions.

The Istanbul negotiations are complicated by growing suspicions that Russia is trying to export grain it has stolen from Ukrainian farmers in areas under its control.

Data from the US space agency released last week showed that 22% of Ukrainian farmland has been under Russian control since the start of the invasion on February 24.

Both sides said they have made progress but are sticking to tough demands that could derail the talks.

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Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv was “one step away from an agreement with Russia”.

“We are in the final stages and everything now depends on Russia,” he told Spanish newspaper El País.

Russia has said its demands include the right to “search ships to avoid arms smuggling” – a request that Kyiv has denied.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres tried on Tuesday to downplay expectations of an imminent breakthrough.

“We are indeed working hard, but there is still a long way to go,” he told reporters.

theguardian Gt

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