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Grain ships sail from Ukraine ports as Russian missiles knock out power across country

By Pavel Polityuk

KYIV, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Ships carrying grain sailed from Ukrainian ports on Monday despite Moscow's suspension of its participation in a U.N. program to ensure the safety of such cargoes amid an unrelenting war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country would continue implementing the program, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in July and aimed at keeping the supply of food commodities to world markets flowing.

"We understand what we offer the world. We offer stability on the food production market," Zelenskiy told a news conference.

But Moscow said it was "unacceptable" for shipping to pass through a Black Sea security corridor as Ukraine was using it to conduct military operations against Russia.

The Russian defense ministry said it could not guarantee security in the area until the Kyiv agreed not to use the route for military purposes - an accusation Ukraine denies.

However, the ministry did not say what Russia would do if ships continued to sail the route. It stressed that Russia was not withdrawing from the deal but only suspending it.

Moscow announced the suspension on Saturday after what it said was a Ukrainian drone attack on its Black Sea fleet.

Meanwhile on the 250th day of a war that has ground on since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian missiles rained down across the country. Explosions boomed out in Kyiv, sending black smoke into the sky.

Ukrainian officials said energy infrastructure was hit including at hydro-electric dams, knocking out power, heat and water supplies.

Ukraine's military said it had shot down 44 of 50 Russian missiles. But strikes left 80% of Kyiv without running water, authorities said. Ukrainian police said 13 people were injured in the latest attacks.

"FOOD MUST FLOW"

Still, the resumption of food exports from Ukrainian ports suggested that the prospect of rising world hunger had been averted for now. International officials had feared that Moscow would reimpose a blockade on Ukrainian grain.

Earlier on Monday, Amir Abdullah, the U.N. official who coordinates the program, said in a Tweet: "Civilian cargo ships can never be a military target or held hostage. The food must flow."

Shortly afterwards, Ukraine confirmed that 12 ships had set sail. The 354,500 tonnes of grain they carried was the most in a day since the program began.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, in a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, said it was very important for the grain deal to continue, the Turkish defense ministry said.

MISSILE STRIKES

Russia's missile strikes during the Monday morning rush hour repeated a tactic it has pursued this month of targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, especially power stations.

The U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, Bridget Brink, tweeted: "Like millions of Ukrainians, our @USEmbassyKyiv team is once again taking shelter as Russia continues its callous and barbaric missile strikes on the people of Ukraine in an effort to leave the country cold and dark as we approach winter."

For the past three weeks, Russia has attacked Ukrainian civil infrastructure using expensive long-range missiles and cheap Iranian-made "suicide drones" that fly at a target and detonate.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said 18 targets, mostly energy infrastructure, were hit in missile and drone strikes on 10 Ukrainian regions on Monday.

In Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, the strikes had caused a blackout that left trolleybus driver Ihor Polovikov stranded in his electric cable-powered vehicle.

He was fed up, he said, adding: "But nobody will give up just like that. We got used to it, it's the ninth month. Everyone has understood that this is necessary."

"BLACKMAILING THE WORLD"

Moscow said it was forced to pull out of the Black Sea grain shipping deal after blaming Kyiv for blasts that damaged Russian navy ships in the Crimean port of Sevastopol on Saturday.

Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied it was behind the explosions that hit the Crimea base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, but says Russia's navy is a legitimate military target. Moscow said the blasts were caused by a wave of sea and air drones.

After Russia suspended its participation in the grain shipping program, the United States accused Russia of using food as a weapon. President Zelenskiy said Moscow was "blackmailing the world with hunger". Russia denies that is its aim.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the U.N.-brokered deal was "hardly feasible" since Russia could no longer guarantee the safety of shipping.

Ukraine and Russia are both among the world's largest exporters of food. For three months, the U.N.-backed deal has guaranteed Ukrainian exports can reach markets, lifting a Russian de facto blockade. The news that Moscow was pulling out of the deal had sent global wheat prices soaring by more than 5% on Monday morning.

The ships that sailed on Monday included one hired by the U.N. World Food Program to bring 40,000 tonnes of grain to drought-hit Africa.

Also on Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said Moscow had completed the partial military mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin in September and no further call-up notices would be issued.

Putin announced Russia's first mobilization since World War Two on Sept. 21, one of a series of escalatory measures in response to Ukrainian gains on the battlefield.

Defense Minister Shoigu said at the time that some 300,000 additional personnel would be drafted. But the mobilization has proceeded chaotically and thousands have fled Russia to avoid being drafted.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux, additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

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