BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon on Friday denied claims by the Ukrainian embassy in Beirut that a Syrian vessel docked in a Lebanese port was carrying Ukrainian grain stolen by Russia after being inspected by Lebanese customs officers.
A senior Lebanese customs official told The Associated Press that the Laodicea’s cargo, which docked in the Lebanese port of Tripoli on Thursday, is “all right” and that its paperwork is in order. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The controversy surrounding the ship has highlighted Lebanon, a tiny Mediterranean country bordering Syria, at the center of Russia’s months-long war in Ukraine.
Laodicea is transporting 5,000 tons of flour and 5,000 tons of barley, which, according to the Ukrainian embassy in Beirut, were illegally exported by Russia. After the embassy sounded the alarm, the Lebanese authorities launched an investigation.
Meanwhile, the Russian embassy told Lebanese media that Ukraine’s claim was “unfounded.”
In 2015, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Laodicea for its association with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the Ukrainian embassy, the Laodicea is among dozens of ships Kyiv claims were carrying Russian-stolen grain. The embassy said in a statement Friday that the ship disabled its AIS tracking system in the Black Sea for 10 days after it docked in the Russian-controlled Crimean port of Feodosia earlier this month.
There, according to the embassy, he was “loaded with barley and wheat flour illegally exported from the territories of Zaporozhye, Nikolaev and Kherson” in Ukraine, territories captured by Russia during the war.
Marine Traffic, which tracks ship movements and whereabouts at sea, said the ship was originally bound for the port of Tartus in Syria and was expected to arrive earlier this week. It is not known why he was diverted to Lebanon.
There was no sign that its cargo was being unloaded, and the customs officer who spoke to the AP said the ship would remain in the dock until “the owner decides what to do with the cargo.”
Also on Friday, Lebanese Acting Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib said Lebanon had received “a series of protests and warnings from a number of Western countries following the arrival” of a Syrian-flagged ship in Tripoli. The British embassy in Beirut told the AP that it had also expressed concerns to Bu Habib about the ship.
The Embassy of Ukraine stated that it was going to appeal to the Lebanese authorities with a request to comply with the decision of the Ukrainian court and take possession of the vessel. Lebanese government officials declined to publicly comment on the matter until the investigation was completed.
Lebanon is struggling to improve relations with the West as the cash-strapped country seeks bailouts to rebuild its economy. Western countries and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are annoyed by the political power and influence that the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, the main ally of Iran and Syria, wields in Lebanese politics.
Ukrainian Ambassador Igor Ostash met on Thursday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and warned him that buying stolen goods from Russia would “damage bilateral relations,” the embassy said in a statement.
Earlier, Kyiv praised Lebanon for denouncing Russia for its war with Ukraine, upsetting Hezbollah and its allies, who say they have not been consulted on the matter, as well as Russia.
Ukraine also recently pledged to export flour to Lebanon, battling a wheat shortage and a food security crisis.
The Russian-Ukraine war, now in its sixth month, has kept grain from leaving the “breadbasket of the world,” making food more expensive around the world and threatening to exacerbate shortages, hunger, and political instability in developing countries. Together, Russia and Ukraine export nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley.
On the future: This still from a video shared on Friday, July 29, 2022, shows the Syrian cargo ship Laodicea docked at the Tripoli seaport in northern Lebanon. On Friday, Lebanon denied a statement by the Ukrainian embassy in Beirut that a Syrian ship moored in a Lebanese port was carrying Ukrainian grain stolen by Russia after checking by Lebanese customs officers. (AP photo)
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