The Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni reached Turkish waters one day after setting off with 26,000 tonnes of maize from Ukraine

Istanbul (AFP) - A team of Russian and Ukrainian officials in Turkey is due on Wednesday to inspect the first shipment of grain exported from Ukraine since Moscow’s invasion under a deal aimed at curbing a global food crisis.

The Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni arrived at the edge of the Bosphorus Strait just north of Istanbul on Tuesday, a day after leaving the Black Sea port of Odessa carrying 26,000 tonnes of maize bound for Lebanon.

The ship sailed through a specially cleared corridor in the mine-infested waters of the Black Sea, which had been under a Russian blockade.

It is due to be inspected Wednesday by a team that includes Russian and Ukrainian officials, in accordance with Russia’s wish to ascertain the nature of the cargo, the Turkish defence ministry said.

The Razoni set sail under a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to lift Russia’s naval blockade of the Black Sea and allow the shipment of millions of tonnes of produce to world markets to help curb a global food crisis.

Main ports in the Black Sea region

The UN secretary-general’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said he hoped for “more outbound movement” on Wednesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he wished for “regularity” in shipments.

“When one ship leaves the port, there are other ships as well – both those loading and those approaching the port,” he said in his nightly address Tuesday.

“Continuity and regularity is the necessary principle. All consumers of our agricultural products need it.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Monday “warmly” welcomed the departure of the Razoni, expressing hope “this will bring much-needed stability and relief to global food security especially in the most fragile humanitarian contexts”.

Kyiv said it had started mandatory evacuations from the eastern region of Donetsk

The halt of deliveries from Ukraine – one of the world’s biggest grain exporters – has contributed to soaring food prices, hitting the world’s poorest nations especially hard.

Kyiv says at least 16 more grain ships are waiting to depart.

But it also accuses Russia of stealing Ukrainian grain in territories seized by Kremlin forces and then shipping it to allied countries in Africa and the Middle East, such as Syria.

Russia attacked the Odessa port from which the Razoni set off less than 24 hours after the grain deal was signed in Istanbul on July 22, putting the safety of future deliveries in doubt.

- Donetsk evacuations -

Russia has continued to pound cities and towns across Ukraine’s sprawling front line.

Kyiv said it had started mandatory evacuations from the eastern region of Donetsk, which is bearing the brunt of the Russian offensive, after Zelensky urged the estimated 200,000 remaining residents to leave.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said a train carrying “women, children, elderly people, many people with reduced mobility” arrived in the central city of Kropyvnytskyi on Tuesday morning.

A building damaged by Russian shelling in Mykolaiv

Officials have said they want to get residents out of the battered region before the start of winter as gas pipes for heating have been severed.

In the south of the country, the head of Ukraine’s Kryviy Rig military administration said Russian shelling had killed two civilians in a minibus trying to leave the Moscow-controlled Kherson region.

Ukrainian forces have in recent days been pressing a counter-offensive to drive out the Russians from the region.

Dmytro Butriy, the head of the Ukrainian authorities in Kherson, said Tuesday they had so far taken 53 settlements back under their control.

- More Western arms -

Ukraine was bolstered by more supplies of Western arms – particularly long-range artillery – ahead of the planned push to retake Kherson city.

The United States announced a new tranche of weapons worth $550 million for Ukraine’s forces, including ammunition for increasingly important HIMARS rocket launchers and artillery pieces.

Zelensky thanked President Joe Biden and said “the word ‘HIMARS’ has become almost synonymous with the word ‘justice’ for our country”.

“We still cannot completely break the advantage of the Russian army in artillery and in manpower, and this is very tangible in the battles, especially in Donbas, Pisky, Avdiivka, other directions. It’s just hell there. It can’t even be described in words,” he said in his address Tuesday night.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russia’s supreme court labelled Ukraine’s Azov regiment a “terrorist” organisation – a decision that could pave the way for fighters captured by the Kremlin to face lengthy jail terms.

Azov fighters were among 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in May after weeks of fierce resistance at the Azovstal steel plant in devastated Mariupol.

The regiment – which was incorporated into Ukraine’s national guard in 2014 – is demonised by Moscow for alleged far-right links.

Its members were among 50 Ukrainian servicemen killed last week in an attack on a jail holding prisoners of war in Russian-occupied territory.

Ukraine has accused Moscow of deliberately executing the detainees, while Russia says Ukrainian forces hit the facility with missiles.

Azov, in response to the Russian court ruling, called on the United States and other countries to recognise Russia as a “terrorist state”.