KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A ship approached Ukraine on Friday to pick up wheat for hungry people in Ethiopia, the first food delivery to Africa under a U.N.-brokered plan to unblock grain trapped in Russia’s war and bring relief to some of the millions around the world on the brink of starvation.
For months, the fighting and the Russian blockade meant that grain produced in Ukraine, known as the world’s breadbasket, was piled up in silos, sending food prices sky high and leading to famine in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. In recent days, several ships carrying grain have left Ukrainian ports under the new deal – but most of the shipments were animal feed and headed for Turkey or Western Europe.
But on Friday, European Council President Charles Michel announced that the first shipment of humanitarian aid from the UN World Food Program for Africa would soon be loaded and then set off. In the afternoon, MarineTraffic, a tracking website, showed the ship headed for southern Ukraine.
WATCH: The complex challenges of shipping grain from war-torn Ukraine
Michel said the ship would bring grain to Ethiopia, saying “the cooperation of all the actors involved is essential” to alleviate food shortages and hunger around the world. The Brave Commander was expected to carry more than 23,000 metric tons, according to Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry — just a fraction of the roughly 20 million tons of grain languishing in Ukraine. The ship is expected to dock in the Horn of Africa country of Djibouti.
Ethiopia, along with neighboring Somalia and Kenya, is in the grip of the driest drought in the last four decades in the Horn of Africa. Thousands of people across the region have died of starvation or disease this year. Forecasts for the coming weeks indicate that, for the first time, a fifth consecutive rainy season will not materialize. Millions of livestock, the basis of many families’ wealth and food security, have died.
“Millions of households will struggle to cope with these shocks” in Ethiopia, according to a new assessment by the Famine Early Warning System Network. “Food aid needs are at record levels, with up to 15 million people in need of food aid.”
Although one shipment will not have a major effect on the crisis, the World Food Program nevertheless announced it as an “important step” in getting Ukrainian grain out of the country to the worst-affected countries.
While the news offered a rare glimmer of hope, it was offset by continued fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, where most of the fighting has been concentrated as the war nears its six-month deadline. The city of Kramatorsk was hit by 11 rockets during the night. Seven people were killed and 14 wounded in the town and its surroundings, which are still cut off from gas, water and electricity.
“Three-quarters of the region’s population has already been evacuated because the constant shelling by the Russian army leaves civilians no choice – either to die of wounds, or of hunger and cold in winter,” Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kirilenko told Ukrainian television.
The threat of a nuclear accident also looms in eastern Ukraine, where shelling has hit the area that is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
Shelling near the Zaporozhye facility under Russian control continued during the night. Russian forces fired more than 40 rockets at the town of Marhanets, which is across the Dnieper River from the power plant. In the latest shelling, three people were wounded, including a 12-year-old boy. The neighboring city of Nikopol was also shelled, said the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Valentin Reznichenko.
The head of the UN nuclear unit warned late Thursday that “very alarming” military activity at the nuclear power plant could lead to dangerous consequences.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi called on Russia and Ukraine, which blame each other for the attacks on the plant, to immediately allow nuclear experts to assess the damage and assess safety and security at the large nuclear complex where the situation is “deteriorating very quickly.”
He pointed to the shelling and several explosions in Zaporizhzhya last Friday that shut down a power transformer and two auxiliary transformers, forcing the shutdown of one nuclear reactor.