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Controversial Russian cargo ship still stranded off Turkish coast – AFR

A Russian-flagged cargo ship at the center of a battle over grain between Kyiv and Moscow remained anchored off Turkey’s Black Sea coast on Tuesday — a full four days after its unexpected arrival.

Ukraine claims the Zhibek Zholy left its Kremlin-held port of Berdyansk after taking on confiscated wheat.

Moscow acknowledges that the 7,000-ton vessel was flying the Russian flag but denies any wrongdoing.

And NATO member Turkey has said nothing official in public as it seeks to maintain open ties with both Moscow and Kyiv while facing Ukrainian pressure to seize the ship.

The saga began when a Kremlin-appointed leader in southeastern Ukraine last Thursday announced the start of the first official grain shipments across the Black Sea since Russia invaded its neighbor in February.

Russia claims it has “nationalized” Ukrainian state assets and is buying grain from local farmers. Ukraine says its grain is being stolen and used to fund Russia’s war effort.

Maritime websites then showed the Zhibek Zholy reaching the Turkish Black Sea port of Karasu and stopping about a kilometer offshore.

The ship’s arrival was announced by Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey – one of the most vocal officials in the entire dispute.

He tweeted that Turkey should take “appropriate action” and then told Ukrainian state television the ship had been seized by the local coast guard.

Turkish officials still had no comment, although the 140-meter-long ship was now clearly visible to holidaymakers lounging on Karasu’s sandy beach.

– ‘It never moved’ –

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted to reporters on Monday that the Zhibek Zholy failed to reach its intended target.

But he also downplayed Moscow’s role or the ship’s importance in Russia’s efforts to resume shipping from parts of Ukraine now under its control.

“We have to deal with this situation,” Lavrov said.

“The ship seems to be really Russian and sails under the Russian flag. I believe it belongs to Kazakhstan while the cargo was shipped under contract between Estonia and Turkey.”

Kazakhstan said the ship was controlled by its national railway company but insisted it shouldn’t be at fault.

“There should be no consequences for Kazakhstan,” Kazakh Industry Minister Kairbek Uskenbayev told reporters.

“There were no restrictions on the Russian company that currently charters this ship.”

A Turkish diplomatic source told AFP on condition of anonymity that an “inspection” of the ship’s cargo was still ongoing.

But beachgoers watching the diplomatic drama unfold before them in Karasu – a town of 30,000 that swells during the summer tourism season – say little has happened on the ship since it surfaced.

“It never moved,” said local retiree Salise Aktan.

“On Sunday, a boat approached the ship and then left,” added another beachgoer, Gulay Erol.

“I don’t know why,” said the 33-year-old.

– “Balanced Policy” –

Turkey’s four-day silence underscores the difficulty of its position in the war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had a tumultuous but close working relationship with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

He has tried to use this access to push Turkey into the middle of diplomatic negotiations and talks about resuming grain shipments from Ukrainian ports.

But its relations with Russia are complicated by Turkey’s international obligations as a member of the NATO defense bloc.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month Ankara is investigating reports of Ukrainian grain seized by Russia reaching the Black Sea coast.

But he added that Turkey could not find any stolen Ukrainian grain shipments.

Ankara also supplies Ukraine with combat drones, which have proven effective in slowing Russia’s advance through the Donbass war zone.

Erdogan told a NATO summit in Madrid last week that his country was trying to adopt a “balanced policy” because of its heavy reliance on Russian energy.

Turkish defense officials met with a Ukrainian delegation on Monday.

Details of those talks were not disclosed.

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