The first grain ship from Ukraine since Russia’s invasion is ready and waiting for the signal to leave port, says President Volodymyr Zelensky.
He was speaking on a visit to the port of Chornomorsk, after the UN aid chief said the ship could leave as soon as Friday.
A UN-led deal was signed a week ago to resume exports after a blockade that led to food price rises.
But Martin Griffiths said “crucial details” still had to be ironed out.
A source told Russian media it could happen, barring unforeseen circumstances.
With hopes of an imminent departure, President Zelensky joined ambassadors from the G7 industrialised nations on the Black Sea coast, standing in front of the Turkish-registered ship Polarnet.
While the ship was being loaded with grain, officials said another 17 ships were already laden with 600,000 tonnes of cargo.
The UN aid chief made clear exports could only resume safely when the route through the Black Sea was finalised.
Under the agreement signed by Russia and Ukraine, the sea corridor, convoy and inspection of the cargo are all being organised by a joint co-ordination centre (JCC) in Turkey and final preparations were reportedly still not in place.
While significant, the first grain ship to leave Ukraine’s shores will be more of a testing of the waters than an unblocking of a major supply route.
From our vantage point next to the port of Chornomorsk, south of Odesa, the Black Sea is looking pretty choppy.
It’s here that there has been the first shipping activity in weeks, with tugboats manoeuvring and a single vessel changing position.
The gathering of G7 and United Nations ambassadors 25 miles to the north reflects the political will to finally export Ukraine’s grain again.
But by the admission of global shipping insurers and even the UN itself, there are still “crucial” details to be ironed out.
Don’t expect convoys of grain to immediately follow the first ship, if or when it leaves.
Russian naval forces control most of the Black Sea, leaving some 20 million tonnes of grain stored in Ukraine, waiting for export. An added risk to the operation is that the biggest port of Odesa has been mined by Ukraine’s military.
The suspension of grain exports, now into a sixth month, has led to food shortages across Africa.
The destination of the first ship was not yet clear, but the UN aid chief said Somalia was a priority. Eight areas of the country are at risk of famine.
President Zelensky said it was important for Ukraine to guarantee global food security: “While someone, blocking the Black Sea, takes the lives of other countries, we are giving them opportunity to survive.”
Although Russia fired missiles at Odesa port at the weekend, there is optimism that the deal, set for an initial 120 days, may work.
Before Russia’s invasion, the two countries accounted for a third of the world’s exports of wheat and barley. Russia is also keen to resume its own exports of grain and fertiliser.
The regional head in Odesa, Serhiy Bratchuk, posted a map showing how the grain corridor to and from Odesa might work, with an area for inspection near the port and a route following the Ukrainian coast to the mouth of the River Danube.
Ukrainian officials said the Black Sea ports of Chornomorsk and Odesa were ready for ships to leave, while a third, Pivdennyi, would be prepared by the end of the week.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said all the details of the first shipment had to be calculated and everything “checked once more, twice, three times”.
“There are, as you know, ships with grain in those Odesa ports ready to leave, and we have been hoping to see that happen even today or tomorrow,” Martin Griffiths told reporters late on Thursday.
“But we can only see that happen safely when those procedures are clear and the parties in the JCC have agreed to those movements and where exactly is the corridor.”
Mr Griffiths said he thought any problems would be settled very quickly, with the aim of returning to pre-war export levels of some five million metric tonnes a month.
*PHOTO: President Zelensky made an unannounced appearance in Odesa amid optimism about the first shipment