Ukrainian claims ship may have stolen food near Syria

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A Russian cargo ship that Ukraine claims to hold grain stolen from territory seized by Moscow appears to have arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus, according to satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press on Thursday.

The arrival of SV Konstantin marks the latest shipment of Ukrainian grain – either legally purchased or allegedly looted – to Syria. Another, Razoni, was recently docked with legally purchased Ukrainian corn As part of a UN-led effort aimed at transporting the country’s food from war zones to a starving world.

The arrival of the Constantine also shows how much Damascus has relied on Russia to keep its embattled President Bashar Assad in power during the country’s years-long war, especially in a country with Russia A Mediterranean port with warships and important granaries operated by Russia.

The Constantine departed from the Russian-occupied Crimea peninsula in the Black Sea around July 6, according to ship-tracking data from MarineTraffic.com analyzed by The Associated Press.

Ihor Ostash, Ukraine’s ambassador to Lebanon, told Espreso TV that the ship was loaded with Ukrainian grain in Sevastopol. Ukrainian officials say the port city in Crimea has seen Russian troops trucking food from the occupied territory before.

The Constantine crossed the Bosphorus to reach the Turkish city of Izmir on the Aegean Sea. The ship then sailed off the coast of Cyprus into the Mediterranean Sea and turned off its Automatic Identification System tracker on Sunday. Ships should keep their AIS trackers turned on, but ships that want to hide their movements will usually turn their trackers off. Those heading to Syrian ports usually do.

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press showed the Constantine off the coast of Tartus on Tuesday and Wednesday. The ship’s length, width and appearance are similar to previous images of the ship taken by Planetary Labs while its AIS tracker was still in northern Cyprus.

Yoruk Isik, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington who monitors shipping through the Bosphorus, has been tracking the Constantine. He and other OSINT analysts first said they believed the ship was also near Tartus, based on satellite photos.

Officials at the port of Tartus could not be reached for comment. The Syrian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

Syria remains under Western sanctions for killing and abusing civilians during the civil war, but the West has exempted food supplies. It’s already May, Satellite imagery shows Russian-flagged Matros Pozynich at the dock in Latakia, Syria. Ukraine said the ship stole 27,000 tonnes of grain from Russia and initially tried to sell it to Egypt, which refused to accept the cargo.

Tartus, in the Mediterranean Sea, is about 320 kilometers (200 miles) northwest of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Russia has a Soviet-era naval base there, the only facility of its kind outside the former Soviet Union.

In 2017, Moscow reached an agreement with the Assad government to extend its lease in Tartus for 49 years. The agreement allows Russia to keep up to 11 warships there, including nuclear-powered ones. Satellite photos this week showed at least two Russian submarines and other warships at the port.

The port is run by Stroytransgaz, a Russian company owned by billionaire oligarch Gennady Timchenko through his investment company, the Volga Group. Timchenko, a billionaire close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and subject to EU sanctions, U.S. Stroytransgaz did not respond to a request for comment.

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Associated Press writer Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.



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