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335329

WRAPUP 4-U.N. chief delays travel to try to bring Russia back into Black Sea grain deal

(Adds Ukraine says 218 vessels blocked, wheat prices seen soaring)

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Russia says move a response to Ukraine attack on ships

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July agreement allowed grain exports from Ukraine

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Biden says 'outrageous' move will increase starvation

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Moscow criticises U.S. reaction

By Pavel Polityuk and Michelle Nichols

KYIV/NEW YORK, Oct 30 (Reuters) - The head of the United Nations said he was "deeply concerned" by Russia's decision to suspend its participation in a U.N.-brokered grain deal and delayed a foreign visit to try to revive the agreement, which aims to ease a global food crisis.

Moscow halted its role in the Black Sea deal on Saturday, effectively cutting shipments from Ukraine, one of the world's top grain exporters. It said it was responding to what it called a major Ukrainian drone attack earlier in the day on its fleet near the port of Sevastopol in Russian-annexed Crimea.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres was engaging in "intense contacts aiming at the end of the Russian suspension of its participation", U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said. Guterres had delayed his departure for the Arab League Summit in Algiers for a day to focus on the issue, his statement added.

NATO said Ukraine's grain exports had helped reduce food prices the world over. "We call on Russia to reconsider its decision and renew the deal urgently, enabling food to reach those who need it most," spokesperson Oana Lungescu said.

Ukraine's infrastructure ministry said 218 vessels were "effectively blocked" by the decision. Wheat prices on international commodities markets were expected to leap on Monday as a result, analysts said.

The European Union also urged Moscow to reverse course.

"Russia's decision to suspend participation in the Black Sea deal puts at risk the main export route of much needed grain and fertilisers to address the global food crisis caused by its war against Ukraine," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter.

Turkey negotiated the July 22 grain deal along with the United Nations. Its Defence Ministry said Minister Hulusi Akar was in talks with Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to resume the agreement and had asked parties to avoid any "provocation".

On Saturday, U.S. President Joe Biden called Russia's move "purely outrageous", saying it would increase starvation, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Moscow of weaponising food. On Sunday, Russia's ambassador to Washington, snapped back, saying the U.S. response was "outrageous" and made false assertions about Moscow's move.

Russia's defence ministry said Ukraine attacked the Black Sea Fleet near Sevastopol with 16 drones early on Saturday, and that British navy "specialists" had helped coordinate what it called a terrorist attack. Britain denied the claim.

Ukraine has neither denied nor confirmed it was behind the attack while Ukrainian military suggested that Russians themselves may have been responsible for the explosions.

'HUNGER GAMES'

Russia said it had repelled the attack but that the ships targeted were involved in ensuring the grain corridor out of Ukraine's Black Sea ports.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Moscow used the explosions 220 km (137 miles) away from the grain corridor as a "false pretext" for a long-intended move.

"Russia took the decision to resume its hunger games long ago and now tries to justify it," Kuleba said on Twitter, without offering any evidence.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's chief of staff accused Russia on Saturday of inventing attacks on its own facilities.

Kyiv often accuses Russia of using the Black Sea Fleet to fire cruise missiles at Ukrainian civilian targets, a charge supported by some military analysts, who say that makes the fleet a legitimate military target.

Russia's departure from the grain deal marks a new development in an eight-month war that began with Russia's invasion in February. The conflict has recently been dominated by a Ukrainian counteroffensive and Russian drone and missile attacks that have destroyed more than 30% of Ukraine's generating capacity and hit populated areas.

Each side has accused the other of being prepared to detonate radioactive bombs.

Zelenskiy called for a strong response from the United Nations and Group of 20 (G20) major economies to what he called Russia's nonsensical move on the grain deal, saying in a video address on Saturday that the move threatened large-scale famine in Africa and Asia.

SHIPS BLOCKED

The grain deal had restarted shipments from Ukraine, allowing sales on world markets, targeting the pre-war level of 5 million metric tonnes exported from Ukraine each month.

More than 9 million tonnes of corn, wheat, sunflower products, barley, rapeseed and soy have been exported under the deal.

But ahead of its Nov. 19 expiry, Russia had repeatedly said that there were serious problems with it and Ukraine complained that Moscow had blocked almost 200 ships from picking up grain cargoes.

When the agreement was signed, the U.N. World Food Programme said some 47 million people were suffering "acute hunger" as the war halted Ukrainian shipments, causing global food shortages and sending prices soaring.

The deal ensured safe passage in and out of Odesa and two other Ukrainian ports in what an official called a "de facto ceasefire" for the ships and facilities covered.

Russia told Guterres on Saturday in a letter, seen by Reuters, that it was suspending the deal for an "indefinite term" because it could not "guarantee safety of civilian ships" travelling under the pact.

Moscow asked the U.N. Security Council to meet on Monday to discuss the Sevastopol attack, Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy wrote on Twitter.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Reuters bureaus Writing by William Mallard, Guy Faulconbridge, Tomasz Janowski, Philippa Fletcher Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Nick Macfie and Frances Kerry)

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