Lebanese authorities said Friday they were investigating a Ukrainian allegation that a Syrian ship under US sanctions that docked in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli was carrying Ukrainian grain stolen by Russia.
The Laodicea, a Syrian-flagged cargo ship owned by the state transport company, arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday with nearly 10 tons of wheat and barley. Shortly afterwards, the Ukrainian embassy warned the Lebanese authorities that they believed the grain had been stolen by Russia. Russia is a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and intervened in that country’s civil war to keep him afloat.
According to Raymond El Khoury, director-general of the authority, Lebanese customs are inspecting the ship’s documents to assess whether the cargo is under sanctions or has been stolen. But he said the Ukrainian embassy had not sent any evidence to substantiate his claims, and that if no evidence was found that the grain had been stolen, it would be unloaded. It was not clear where the grain was eventually tied.
“We are still doing our investigation,” said Mr. El Khoury. “I can’t play pirate and stop ships without proof.”
At a news conference Friday afternoon, Ukraine’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ihor Ostash, said the ship was on a list of 78 ships that Ukrainian law enforcement agencies had proven involved in the illegal transportation of stolen Ukrainian grain. A Ukrainian judge on Friday issued an order to seize the Laodicea along with the cargo carried on board, Mr. Ostash.
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The United States warned in May that Russia was trying to profit from the looting of Ukrainian grain, which accounts for one-tenth of global wheat exports. According to Ukrainian officials, much of the stolen grain was transported to ports in Crimea, which Russia controls, and then loaded onto Russian cargo ships, including some under Western sanctions. Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing up to 500,000 tons of wheat, worth $100 million, since its February invasion.
The Russian embassy in Lebanon told a local TV station that the Ukrainian allegations were false and said the ship had no ties to the Russian government.
Laodicea has been under US sanctions since 2015 as part of a wide-ranging effort to pressure and isolate the Syrian government for its brutal actions during the civil war. The ship left the Turkish port of Izmir on July 7 and set sail for the Black Sea, with stops at more Turkish ports, according to detailed navigation data collected by maritime website MarineTraffic.
The ship apparently had disabled its satellite transmitter and after a brief disappearance from the chart, the Laodicea resurfaced on July 21, halfway through the Black Sea heading south toward the Turkish Strait of the Bosphorus.
Ukrainian authorities say the ship headed for a port in Crimea and was loaded with stolen Ukrainian grain while the transmitter was offline, traveling close to the Turkish coast along Cyprus before reaching Tripoli, Lebanon.
Ships carrying Ukrainian grain have used a number of tactics to mask their activities, including disabling their transponders, according to a former US secretary of state, James K. Glassman, a spokesman for the Initiative for the Study of Russian Piracy, which was recently launched. published a report investigating the Russian theft of Ukrainian grain and steel.
He said the Russians also mix their own grain with Ukrainian grain to avoid sanctions. Russia and Ukraine grow different types of grain because of their climate, and if they are mixed, it is more difficult to distinguish them.
Mr El Khoury said that since the Laodicea had stopped in Turkish ports before arriving in Lebanon, Turkish authorities would have seized the ship if there were any problems with the grain. The Turkish government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Turkey helped close the deal Ukraine and Russia signed last week to resume Ukrainian grain exports.
Valerie Hopkins and Matina Stevis-Gridneff reporting contributed.