The head of the UN humanitarian agency on Monday dismissed a claim from Moscow that a civilian cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain may have been involved in a drone strike against Russia.
Martin Griffiths told the Security Council in New York that at the time of the attack on Saturday, no such ships were in the grain corridor “safe zone” in the Black Sea through which vital shipments from Ukraine have passed under a deal aimed at easing a global food crisis.
“No vessel reported an incident over the weekend,” he added.
Russia suspended its participation in the deal on Saturday after drone strikes against its naval fleet, claiming without evidence that one of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) might have come from a grain ship taking part in the Black Sea Initiative.
“The corridor is just lines on a chart: when Initiative vessels are not in the area, the corridor has no special status,” Mr Griffiths said. “It provides neither cover nor protection for offensive or defensive military action.”
Ukraine has strongly denied the accusations and Russia's move took traders by surprise, raising fears of another increase in food prices.
Wheat in Chicago traded 6.4 per cent higher, after earlier jumping as much as 7.7 per cent to $8.93 a bushel at the open on Monday.
Grain in Ukraine — in pictures
The UK ambassador to the UN Barbara Woodward said that ending the grain initiative would unleash an “unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution”.
Mr Griffiths said the UN and other parties to the deal are ready to investigate “any and all evidence presented, if requested”.
Russia's UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Moscow was forced to suspend the agreement indefinitely, after Ukraine “grossly” violated it by using the humanitarian corridor for “military purposes” and attempting to smuggle weapons into the country.
“Russian specialists found and raised the wreckage of underwater UAVs and also conducted an analysis of the navigation-mode modules,” he said and added that some of the drones appeared to have been manufactured in Canada.
He said Moscow could not allow the unimpeded passage of ships through the Black Sea without inspection and will be forced to take “independent measures”.
“Decisions and measures taken without our participation do not oblige us to anything,” Mr Nebenzia told the UN.
Kenya's ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani suggested sending a UN fact-finding and verification mission to report on any armed or blockaded actions related to the war in Ukraine that “endanger global food security.”
Meanwhile, Mr Griffiths said that 12 ships sailed out from Ukrainian ports on Monday and two headed in to load food. The Black Sea grain deal and commitments made remain in force despite Russia's suspension.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Sunday that Secretary General Antonio Guterres is continuing to engage in intense discussions aimed at ending the Russian suspension.
Earlier in the day, the UN co-ordinator for the Black Sea Grain Initiative said that civilian cargo ships must never be a military target or held hostage and that “the food must flow” under the deal.
UN estimates show that the Black Sea Grain Initiative has indirectly prevented about 100 million people from falling into extreme poverty.
More than 60 per cent of the wheat exported under the deal has gone to low and middle-income countries, including via the World Food Programme to Ethiopia, Yemen and Afghanistan.