Ukraine seizes cargo ship, detains captain for exporting 'looted' grain

FILE PHOTO: Wheat harvesting in Zaporizhzhia region

KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine seized a foreign cargo ship on the Danube River and detained the captain on suspicion of helping Moscow export Ukrainian grain from Russian-occupied Crimea, officials said on Thursday.

Kyiv has accused Russia of trading stolen Ukrainian grain since the 2022 war began. Ship seizures, however, have been rare and shipping sources said they were concerned about possible retaliation at a critical time in the year as Ukraine grain exports reach a peak.

The Cameroon-flagged USKO MFU was presented with an arrest order and detained along with its Azeri captain after entering the waters of Reni, a Ukrainian port on the Danube where the river forms the border with Romania, prosecutors said.

The head of Ukraine's prosecutor's office for Crimea, Ihor Ponochovny, told Ukrainian TV that officials were surprised to spot the vessel on the Danube, since ships implicated in illegally carrying grain from Russian-held areas tended to steer clear of Ukraine's waters. Since 2022, Ukraine has imposed arrest in absentia on 21 ships involved in the trade, he said.

"(The seizure) should be a clear signal for those countries that help Russia circumvent sanctions and sell agricultural products stolen in the occupied territories, that there may be responsibility for this," he said.

The vessel had repeatedly docked at the Crimean sea port of Sevastopol to pick up agricultural products in 2023-24, Ukraine's SBU security service said.

An official with the vessel’s Turkey-based ship manager Iyem Asya told Reuters that the vessel’s current cargo was loaded in Moldova.

"The ship, while under our ownership, did not take any cargoes from Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine and never used Ukrainian ports,” the official said.

"Ukrainian soldiers boarded the ship while it was sailing along the Danube with a Romanian pilot present. They forcibly anchored it on their side of the river. Our lawyers are now pursuing the case."

Russian forces have occupied large parts of Ukraine's southern agricultural regions and Kyiv has accused Russia of stealing and destroying its grain.

The SBU said the captain and 12 crew members had helped Russia to export Ukrainian grain taken from the occupied south to the Middle East for sale on behalf of Russia.

"The investigation is ongoing to establish all the circumstances of the crime and identify other persons involved in the illegal activity," the SBU said.

Ukraine's Prosecutor's Office said that on one of its voyages in November 2023, the USKO MFU loaded over 3,000 metric tons of agricultural products in Sevastopol intended for a Turkish company.

The ship last reported its position on July 8 at anchor near Reni port on the Danube, LSEG ship-tracking data showed on Thursday.

The captain could face up to five years in prison for violating travel restrictions governing Ukraine's Russian-occupied territories, the SBU said.

The Danube is crucial to Ukraine's Black Sea exports, which it revived without Russia's assent after Moscow quit a UN-brokered deal last summer to let Kyiv sell food during the war.

Asked if there had been a change in Ukrainian policy, a source in law enforcement told Reuters on Thursday: "This is our policy. This vessel and the captain worked for the occupiers and now he entered the waters controlled by Ukraine. And we had an immediate reaction."

(Reporting by Anastasiia Malenko, Tom Balmforth, Jonathan Saul and Can Sezer; Editing by Tom Balmforth, Arun Koyyur, Barbara Lewis, Peter Graff)