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The Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni, carrying Ukrainian grain, in the Black Sea off Kilyos, near Turkey, on Aug. 3.MEHMET CALISKAN/Reuters

Few cargo ships have received a bigger send-off than the Razoni, a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel that set sail from the Ukrainian port of Odesa last week loaded with 26,527 tonnes of corn.

The Razoni’s departure received global attention and was seen as a triumph of a UN-brokered deal to unblock Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and a step toward preventing a global food crisis.

The ship was supposed to go to Lebanon, which is in desperate need of food, but it didn’t get there. Instead, the crew changed course and headed to Turkey after the buyer of the corn refused to take delivery because it was five months late. “So the shipper is now looking for another consignee to off-load his cargo either in Lebanon or any other country/port,” Ukraine’s embassy in Lebanon said in a statement this week.

The UN negotiated the grain deal last month with Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, and officials had high hopes that it would unlock millions of tonnes of foodstuffs for countries in Africa that are on the brink of starvation. Instead, the deal has run up against commercial interests, and the 12 ships that have left so far have gone to Britain, Ireland, Italy, China, South Korea and Turkey.

There have also been questions about a move by Ankara to get a rebate on grain purchases as a reward for facilitating the agreement. Last month Turkey’s Agriculture Minister, Vahit Kirisci, said Ukraine had agreed to give his country a 25 per-cent discount if the deal went ahead.

On Wednesday, Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said the deal did not include any rebates. “Furthermore, we are not aware of any other agreement that would guarantee a discount,” he said.

There is little doubt the agreement has been an important breakthrough in the war in Ukraine, which is entering its sixth month with no end in sight. Ukraine is a major grain exporter, and many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia rely heavily on its produce.

Ukraine’s three main ports – in Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi – have been closed since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, stranding 20 million tonnes of wheat, barley, corn and oil seeds.

The closure of the ports has caused havoc for farmers and sent the price of Ukrainian grain plummeting. While some has been exported on trucks and by river, those shipments have been small and most farmers have been forced to store this summer’s harvest.

The UN deal was seen as a way to move the grain and get it to countries most in need. But UN officials now acknowledge that they are beholden to commercial contracts and have little control over where the grain ends up.

Mr. Dujarric told reporters this week that all 27 ships stuck in Ukrainian ports were hauling grain under contract. “I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that these are commercial transactions,” he said. “They were under contract through commercial transactions. It’s only normal that they go where the contract stipulates that they go.”

He insisted that the shipments have helped stabilize the price of some agricultural commodities, which will help developing countries and humanitarian organizations buy food.

For now, the only dedicated humanitarian shipment out of the ports is being co-ordinated by the UN’s World Food Programme. The WFP is trying to charter a ship to pick up a load of wheat and deliver it to Somalia and other countries in need. But the shipment has yet to be finalized, and the grain deal only lasts 120 days.

The UN’s main priority is moving out the ships that have been stuck in port since the start of the war. It takes as long as two days to make the journey from Odesa to Istanbul, and ships are not allowed to travel at night under the grain deal. Each vessel is inspected to ensure that no weapons are being transported.

“We’re dealing with three ports that were essentially frozen in time on Feb. 24,” said Fred Kenney, the interim co-ordinator for the UN at the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) in Turkey, which is overseeing the grain agreement. “It’s imperative upon us now to get those ships out so that we can bring ships in to load cargo that will be destined for ports that will contribute to reducing global food insecurity.”

Mr. Kenney told a news conference Wednesday that 370,000 tonnes of grain have been shipped out so far and that two ships have headed to the ports. He added that he expected the traffic to pick up in both directions now that the JCC has established a route and a set of procedures. And he expressed confidence that the UN’s target of moving as much as five million tonnes of grain every month will be reached. “I can say that we receive literally dozens and dozens of phone calls every day and e-mails [from ship owners] asking when can we get ready to go.”

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