Ships Stranded in Ukraine as Conflict Slows UN Rescue Efforts
With more than 1,000 seafarers stranded on ships in Ukrainian ports and food supplies running low, the United Nations is pressing for their safe passage out of danger but security risks and disagreements are hobbling those efforts, maritime sources say.
Russia's military took control of waterways when it invaded Ukraine on February 24, in what Moscow calls a "special operation".
Since then at least 100 foreign flagged ships with over 1,000 seafarers have been stuck inside Ukrainian ports with food supplies running low, shipping officials say.
UN shipping agency the International Maritime Organization (IMO) said this month it would seek to create a safe maritime corridor to enable merchant ships and their crews to sail out of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov without the risk of being hit.
"The IMO Secretariat is working with both Ukraine and the Russian Federation to try and assist the safe departure of the ships and their crew," an IMO spokesperson said.
"However, at present, the ongoing security risks preclude the option for ships to depart from ports in Ukraine."
Multiple issues including the risk of mines is complicating efforts, sources with knowledge of the situation say.
In recent days Turkish and Romanian military diving teams have been involved in defusing stray mines around their waters, underscoring the broader dangers.
"Efforts to establish these safe blue corridors are extremely challenging," the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said.
An ICS spokesperson added that it was trying to deliver provisions to affected vessels, "which are in grave danger of running out of food in the coming days as well as ensuring that vessels are not targeted for any kinetic strikes by any party".
Five merchant vessels have been hit by projectiles - with one of them sunk - off Ukraine's coast with two seafarers killed, shipping officials say.
London's marine insurance market has widened the area of waters it considers high risk in the region.
In a circular letter issued to the IMO on Monday, Russia said it had established a humanitarian maritime corridor starting from March 27 "with the aim of ensuring safe passage" from the Ukrainian ports of Chernomorsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Ochakov, Odesa and Yuzhne.
Russia said the corridor, which would operate daily, represented an 80-mile long and 3-mile wide marine traffic lane from the assembly area.
"The Russian side calls on competent authorities of the Ukraine to provide for the safety and security of the merchant vessels and their crews transition to the assembly area," it said in the circular.
Ukraine’s Maritime Administration is aware of Russia's announcement, its deputy head Victor Vyshnov said, which was first made by Russian warships to commercial ships last week.
The IMO spokesperson said its Secretariat had circulated Russia's communication.
But Vyshnov said any boundaries for the corridor announced by Russia had not been agreed by Ukraine.
"This is just a new sign of Russian propaganda," he told Reuters.
"Due to the ongoing aggression against Ukraine, and Russian mine-laying activities at sea, no one can guarantee shipping safety in this region."
Vyshnov said there were preconditions for the safe evacuation of ships.
"Russia must fully stop the hostilities, withdraw its troops and ensure the freedom and safety of navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, including by carrying out mine-sweeping or allowing other littoral states to do this job," he said.
(Reuters - Reporting by Jonathan Saul; editing by Jason Neely)