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Explainer: UN plan to get Ukraine grains out by sea faces hurdles

Turkey said on Wednesday a United Nations plan to set up a sea corridor for Ukrainian grain exports overseen by Ankara was “reasonable,” but required more talks with Moscow and Kyiv to ensure ships would be safe.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February halted Kyiv’s Black Sea grain exports, threatening a global food crisis. The United Nations wants the two sides, as well as maritime neighbor and NATO member Turkey, to agree a corridor.

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But there are big hurdles to a deal, including persuading Russia to ease its blockade of Ukrainian ports, Kyiv to clear mines it has laid, and then convincing shipping and insurance companies that the corridor is safe to use. And time is running out, with little storage space left for Ukraine’s next harvest starting at the end of July.

Why do Ukrainian grain exports matter?

Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supply, and their importance has been underscored by an Indian export ban as well as adverse crop weather in North America and Western Europe.

The war, together with Western sanctions against Russia, have sent the price of grain, cooking oil, fertilizer and energy soaring.

That in turn is threatening a food crisis in poorer countries, some of which count on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports.

Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil, while Russia and Belarus – which has backed Moscow in the war and is also under sanctions – account for over 40 percent of global exports of the crop nutrient potash.

How much grain is stuck in Ukraine?

Grain is one of Ukraine’s main industries, with exports totaling $12.2 billion in 2021 and accounting for nearly a fifth of the country’s exports.

Prior to the war, Ukraine exported 98 percent of its cereals and oilseed via the Black Sea, at a rate of up to six million tonnes per month.

But with the ports blocked and the railway system unable to cope with the extra volume, the country will only be able to export a maximum two million tonnes of grains a month, Taras Vysotskyi, Ukraine’s first deputy minister of Agrarian Policy and Food, said this week. In May, Ukraine’s grain, oilseed and vegetable oil exports rose 80 percent month on month to 1.74 million tonnes, but were still significantly below May 2021 levels, according to official data.

Washington has accused Russia of using food as a weapon in Ukraine. The Kremlin says it is the West that triggered the crisis by slapping sanctions against Moscow.

Around 22 million tonnes of grain were stuck in Ukraine as of early May due to infrastructure challenges and the naval blockade. As prices surge, UN agencies are having to cut food rations for refugees by up to half in parts of the Sahel, for example, due to a massive funding shortfall.

How advanced is the UN plan to get the grains out?

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described a meeting on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov as fruitful, but said more talks were needed.

Lavrov said it was up to Kyiv to solve the problem of freeing up its grain exports by clearing its ports of mines. If it does that, Russia will ensure safe passage for shipping, with help from Turkey, he said.

However, Kyiv says it needs “effective security guarantees” before it can start shipments, voicing concerns that Moscow could use the potential corridor to move on the port of Odesa.

Also, the director of Ukrainian grain traders union UGA Serhiy Ivashchenko said on Wednesday that Turkey – which has the second biggest army in NATO and a substantial navy – was not powerful enough to act as a guarantor of safe passage.

He said it could take at least two-to-three months to remove mines from Ukrainian ports, and that the Turkish and Romanian navies should be involved.

Are there any other hurdles?

Even if a deal is reached, insurance costs for any vessel braving the Black Sea shipping lanes would likely be very high.

The situation has taken on added urgency because of a shortage of grain storage space in Ukraine. Up to 35 percent of Ukraine’s total storage capacity of 61 million tonnes could still be used up by the 2021 crop by the time the new harvest comes in from July, according to research center APK-Inform.

Why can’t the grains get out of Ukraine by land?

The Ukrainian rail system operates on a different gauge from European neighbors such as Poland, so the grain has to be transferred to different trains at the border where there are not many transfer or storage facilities.

Kyiv has also been stepping up efforts to ship via the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta. But as of mid-May, only about 240,000 tonnes of grain – or 1 percent of the volume stuck in Ukraine – had passed through.

Re-routing grain to Romania involves transport by rail to ports on the Danube river and loading cargoes onto barges for sailing towards Constanta, a complex and costly process.

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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