BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon appeared Friday to reject claims by the Ukrainian Embassy in Beirut that a Syrian ship docked in a Lebanese port is carrying Ukrainian grain stolen by Russia, following an inspection by Lebanese customs officials.
A senior Lebanese customs official told The Associated Press that there was “nothing wrong” with the cargo of the Laodicea, which docked in the Lebanese port of Tripoli on Thursday, and that its papers were in order. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The controversy surrounding the ship has underscored how Lebanon, a tiny Mediterranean country bordering Syria, has been in the crosshairs of Russia’s months-long war in Ukraine.
The Laodicea is carrying 5,000 tons of flour and 5,000 tons of barley that Ukraine’s Embassy in Beirut says was illegally taken by Russia. After the embassy raised the alarm, Lebanese authorities initiated an investigation.
The Russian Embassy, meanwhile, has told Lebanese media that the Ukrainian claim was “baseless.”
The U.S. Department of the Treasury had sanctioned the Laodicea in 2015 for its affiliation with the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.
According to the Ukrainian Embassy, the Laodicea is among scores of vessels that Kyiv alleges transported grain stolen by Russia. An embassy statement Friday said the ship had turned off its AIS tracking system in the Black Sea for 10 days, after docking earlier this month in Russia-controlled Crimea’s port of Feodosia.
There, the embassy said, it was “loaded with barley and wheat flour illegally exported from the territories of Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Kherson” in Ukraine — areas taken by Russia in the war.
Marine Traffic, which monitors vessel traffic and location of ships on seas, said the vessel was initially heading to Tartus Port in Syria, and had been expected to arrive there earlier this week. It was unknown why it had rerouted to Lebanon.
There were no signs that its cargo was being unloaded and the customs official who spoke to the AP said the ship will remained docked until “the owner decides what to do with the cargo.”
Also Friday, Lebanon’s acting Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said Lebanon had received “a number of protests and warnings from a number of Western countries following the arrival” of the Syrian-flagged ship in Tripoli. The British Embassy in Beirut told the AP that it had also raised concerns with Bou Habib about the ship.
The Ukrainian Embassy said it was going to ask Lebanese authorities to implement a Ukrainian court order and take possession of the vessel. Lebanese government officials declined to publicly comment on the matter, pending the investigation.
Lebanon is scrambling to improve ties with the West as the cash-strapped nation appeals for financial assistance to help with its economic recovery. Western countries and Gulf Arab states are irked by the political power and influence that the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group — a major ally of Iran and Syria — wields in Lebanese politics.
Ihor Ostash, Ukraine’s ambassador, met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Thursday, warning him that purchasing stolen goods from Russia would “harm bilateral ties,” according to an embassy statement.
Kyiv had previously praised Lebanon for condemning Russia for its war on Ukraine, which upset Hezbollah and allies who say they were not consulted on the matter – as well as Russia.
Ukraine had also recently promised to export flour to Lebanon, struggling with a wheat shortage and food security crisis.
Russia’s war on Ukraine, now in its sixth month, has prevented grain from leaving the “breadbasket of the world,” making food more expensive across the globe and threatening to worsen shortages, hunger and political instability in developing countries. Together, Russia and Ukraine export nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley.