5th Mar 2024

Russian warship's 'warning fire' on Black Sea merchant vessel

  • The port of Odessa. The Russian inspection team had been looking for 'prohibited goods' near the Bulgarian coast, according to Reuters (Photo: Unsplash)
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A Russian warship fired warning shots at a Palau-flagged merchant ship in the south-western Black Sea on Sunday, the Russian defence ministry said.

In a statement issued a few hours after the 7am incident, the Russian ministry said the ship, Sukra Okan, had failed to comply with a request by their warship Vasily Bykov to stop and inspect its cargo.

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"To forcibly stop the vessel, warning fire from automatic small arms was opened from the Russian warship," the statement said.

The warning comes weeks after Russia pulled out of a grain deal under which Ukraine exported grain and other products via the Black Sea.

The Russian inspection team was looking for "prohibited goods", it said. As it has previously stated, Moscow regards any ship heading towards Ukrainian waters as a potential threat, and according to Russia, the Palau-flagged vessel was heading towards the Ukrainian port of Izmhail when the inspection team ordered it to stop.

However, data from shipping data platform Refinitiv showed that the ship was near the Bulgarian coast at the time and that it was heading for the Romanian port of Sulina after the inspection, Reuters reported.

One of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky's advisors called the attack a "clear violation of international law of the sea" on his social media.

"Ukraine will draw all necessary conclusions and choose the best possible response," Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter.

Both Russia and Ukraine are major producers of cereals, such as grain, and used to rely on the Black Sea as the main transport route for these agricultural exports.

Following Russia's military aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, around 20 million tonnes of grain were blocked in Ukrainian ports, causing global food prices to spike.

In July 2022, under the aegis of Turkey and the United Nations, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement to open a Black Sea corridor to allow for the transport of this food, as well as Russian screening of ships for weapons at the entrance to the Black Sea.

As a result of the agreement, which was extended several times, some 33 million tonnes of grain were shipped out of Ukrainian ports and food prices finally stabilised.

Prices have now fallen by around 20 percent, easing fears of food shortages in African and Middle Eastern countries that are more dependent on Ukrainian exports and whose supplies were already strained by high prices.

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