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UPDATE 2-U.N. says no ships in grain corridor when Russia says it was attacked

(Adds quotes, details)

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The United Nations on Monday said no ships involved in a U.N.-brokered Ukraine grain export deal were transiting a Black Sea maritime humanitarian corridor on the night of Oct. 29, when Russia says its vessels in Crimea were attacked.

Russia has accused Ukraine of using air and maritime drones to target vessels in the Bay of Sevastopol early on Saturday and suggested one of the drones may have been launched from a civilian vessel chartered to export food from Ukrainian ports.

Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied it was behind the attack but says Russia's navy is a legitimate military target.

Responding to Russia's accusation about possible misuse of cargo ships, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Monday: "None were in the corridor on the night of the 29th of October when the reported attacks took place, and no vessel reported an incident over the weekend."

After Saturday's attack, Moscow said it was suspending its participation in the July 22 deal that allowed Ukraine to restart food exports stalled by Russia's invasion on Feb. 24. No ships transited the maritime humanitarian corridor on Sunday.

"Today 12 ships sailed out from Ukrainian ports and two headed in to load food," Griffiths told the 15-member council.

"We're very encouraged by Russia's assurance ... that it is not pulling out of the initiative ... it is only temporarily suspending activities in the implementation of the initiative," he said, adding that the U.N.'s understanding was that the deal and "commitments remain in force even during the suspension."

That includes a pledge by Russia and Ukraine not to attack cargo ships or port facilities, Griffiths said. He then told reporters: "We believe very strongly that provision remains in force, including for the Russian Federation."

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council that Russia had suspended its participation "for an unspecified period of time" because it "cannot guarantee the safety of civilian vessels participating in the Black Sea initiative."

'WORLD IS HUNGRY'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Twitter on Monday that he had spoken with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and confirmed Kyiv's commitment to the grain deal.

More than 9.5 million tonnes of corn, wheat, sunflower products, barley, rapeseed and soy have been exported from Ukraine under the deal, according to the United Nations. The body has warned that Russia's war was worsening a global food crisis and pushing tens of millions more people into hunger.

Kenya's U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani told the Security Council about Russia's suspension of participation in the pact: "The world is hungry and this development makes life harsher for millions who are not party to the war in Ukraine."

The Black Sea grain export deal is implemented by a Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul made up of Turkish, Russian, U.N. and Ukrainian officials. Griffiths said Russian officials were still in Istanbul and U.N. officials were "very actively engaged" with them on trying to resume Russia's participation.

The July deal also aims to facilitate exports of Russian grain and fertilizer exports. Griffiths heads talks on Ukrainian exports, while senior U.N. trade official Rebeca Grynspan leads discussions on Russian food and fertilizer exports.

Russian grain exports have also increased since July, Grynspan told the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

"Exports from the Russian Federation tripled between July and September, while wheat exports from Ukraine more than quadrupled over the same period of time, resulting in lower food prices in international markets and improved access to food for humanitarian actors," Grynspan said.

But she said more work needed to be done to alleviate a chilling effect of Western sanctions on Russian fertilizer exports. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Doina Chiacu, David Gregorio and Cynthia Osterman)

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