Vessel that Ukraine says likely stole grain off Syria


Dubai, United Arab Emirates — A Russian freighter that Ukraine says is holding grain stolen from territory seized by Moscow appears to have reached the Syrian port of Tartous, according to satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press on Thursday.

The arrival of the SV Konstantin is just the latest shipment of Ukrainian grain – legally purchased or allegedly looted – to reach Syria. Another, the Razoni, recently docked full of legally purchased Ukrainian corn as part of a United Nations-led effort to get the country’s food out of the war zone to a starving world.

Konstantin’s arrival also shows how much Damascus has relied on Russia to keep its embattled President Bashar Assad in power amid his own country’s war, especially in this Mediterranean Sea port that hosts ships warships and has crucial Russian-run grain silos.

The Konstantin traveled from the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea starting around July 6, according to MarineTraffic.com ship tracking data analyzed by the AP.

The ship had loaded Ukrainian grain in Sevastopol, Ihor Ostash, Ukraine’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview with Espreso TV. This Crimean port city has already seen Russian forces truck in grain from the occupied territories, according to Ukrainian officials.

The Konstantin crossed the Bosphorus and reached the Turkish city of Izmir on the Aegean Sea. The ship then headed for the Mediterranean along the Cypriot coast before turning off its Automatic Identification System tracking system on Sunday. Vessels are supposed to keep their AIS trackers on, but vessels wishing to hide their movements often turn theirs off. Those heading to Syrian ports do so regularly.

Planet Labs PBC satellite images analyzed by the AP show the Konstantin off Tartous on Tuesday and Wednesday. The vessel’s length, width and appearance resemble previous Planet Labs images of the vessel taken at a time corresponding to when its AIS tracker was still north of Cyprus.

Yoruk Isik, a nonresident researcher at the Washington-based Middle East Institute that monitors shipping through the Bosphorus, followed the Konstantin. He and other open-source intelligence analysts initially said they believed the ship was also off Tartous, based on satellite photos.

Port of Tartous officials could not be reached for comment. The Syrian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

Syria remains sanctioned by the West for killings and abuses of civilians during the civil war, although food supplies have been exempted by the West. Already in May, satellite images showed the Matros Pozynich, flying the Russian flag, docked in Latakia, Syria. Ukraine said the ship was robbed of 27,000 tons of grain that Russia stole from it and first tried to sell to Egypt, which refused to take the cargo.

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

In 2017, Moscow struck a deal with Assad’s government to extend its lease on Tartous by 49 years. The deal 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 in port.

The Russian company Stroytransgaz, owned by billionaire oligarch Gennady Timchenko through his investment company Volga Group, manages the port. Timchenko is a billionaire close to Russian President Vladimir Putin sanctioned by the European Union and the American 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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