Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) -
Ukraine said Monday it expects to export its first grain shipments under a UN-backed deal to lift Russia's blockade 'this week', days after missile strikes by the Kremlin threw the accord into doubt.
Kyiv and Moscow on Friday agreed the landmark plan to release millions of tonnes of grain trapped in Ukraine's Black Sea ports in a move hailed as a major step to averting a global food crisis.
Less than 24 hours later Moscow struck the port in Odessa -- one of three exit hubs designated in the agreement -- sparking fury in Kyiv and heightening fears the Kremlin would not go through with the deal.
But despite the weekend attack, Ukraine's infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov told journalists Monday that Kyiv was still working to re-start exports and expected to see the agreement begin 'working in the coming days'.
'We are preparing for everything to start this week,' said Kubrakov, who led Ukraine's delegation at last week's grain talks in Istanbul.
Ukrainian officials said the port of Chornomorsk in southwestern Ukraine would be the first to be opened and insisted on the importance of security following the strike on nearby Odessa.
'Our position is very simple. We signed an agreement with the UN and Turkey. If the sides guarantee security, the agreement will work. If they do not, it will not work,' Kubrakov said.
He said that de-mining will take place 'exclusively' in the shipping lanes required for grain exports, while Ukrainian ships will accompany the departing convoys that will transport not only grain but also fertiliser.
Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of agricultural products, but Moscow's invasion has severely disrupted Ukrainian wheat exports as the fighting damaged harvests and left ports blocked and mined.
Russia's naval blockade helped send global prices soaring and sparked fears of famine as it left up to 25 million tonnes of wheat and other grains stranded in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has estimated the value of grain stocks to be exported under the deal at around $10 billion.
- Kremlin's shifting narrative -
The Kremlin insisted Monday that its strikes on Odessa 'should not affect' the Turkish-brokered push to send the grain to world markets.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow's cruise missiles hit 'exclusively' military infrastructure and were 'not connected with the agreement on the export of grain.'
Turkey, which helped broker the accord, said after the attack that it had received assurances from Moscow that Russian forces were not responsible.
Moscow then admitted that it had carried out the strikes, but claimed to have targeted a Ukrainian military vessel and arms delivered by Washington.
Russia has looked to shift the blame for the food crisis onto Western sanctions and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was visiting Africa on a tour aimed at bolstering Moscow's ties in the face of growing isolation.
Lavrov, who is visiting Uganda, Ethiopia and Congo-Brazzaville, told his Egyptian counterpart on his first stop that Russia would meet grain orders.
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak slammed the visit as a cynical ploy by Moscow after it had fuelled the food crisis.
'Lavrov's trip to Africa is the quintessence of Russian sadism. You arranged the artificial hunger and then come to cheer people up,' he said on Twitter, assuring that Ukrainian grain will reach its destinations.
- Fresh weapons from Germany -
The deal for grain exports has brought little reprieve on the battlefield where Russian forces carried out bombardments in numerous regions.
The Ukrainian presidency said Monday that a Russian strike trapped seven people under the rubble of a collapsed cultural centre in the northeastern Kharkiv region. Three were pulled out alive and the rescue operation was ongoing.
It said shelling continued across the entire front line and at least one person was killed in the town of Soledar as Russia tried to push on with its sluggish advance in the devastated Donbas region.
In the south -- where Kyiv has vowed a major counter-offensive to retake the strategic Kherson region -- the authorities said Ukrainian forces stopped a Russian push in several villages as fighting raged elsewhere.
A local official said Sunday that a Ukrainian operation to retake the region Russia captured early in the invasion would be over by September.
Ukraine's bid to oust the Kremlin's forces has been bolstered by longer range Western weapons that have allowed Kyiv to target Russian supply lines deeper in occupied areas.
Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine had received the first of an expected 15 Gepard anti-aircraft systems and tens of thousands of shells from Germany in the latest foreign arms to arrive.