Content ID

331623

WRAPUP 5-Russia accuses U.S. of direct Ukraine war role, grain ship on track

(Adds Russia designating Ukraine's Azov Regiment as 'terrorist' group)

* Ukraine consults US in using HIMAR rocket systems-official

* Comment spurs Kremlin to accuse US of direct involvement

* No immediate comment from White House or Pentagon

* First wartime Ukraine grain ship en route to Lebanon

* Grain exports unblocked under U.N.-brokered deal

By Can Sezer and Orhan Coskun

ISTANBUL/LONDON, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Russia on Tuesday accused the United States of direct involvement in the Ukraine war while the first ship carrying Ukrainian grain to world markets since Moscow's invasion headed towards Lebanon without problems.

Russia said it was responding to comments by Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine's deputy head of military intelligence, about the way Kyiv used U.S.-supplied long-range HIMARs rocket-launch systems based on what he called excellent satellite imagery and real-time information.

Skibitsky told Britain's Telegraph newspaper there was consultation between U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence officials before strikes and that Washington had an effective veto on intended targets, though he said U.S. officials were not providing direct targeting information.

Russia's defence ministry, headed by a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, said the interview showed that Washington was entangled in the conflict despite repeated assertions that it was limiting its role to arms supplies because it did not want a direct confrontation with Moscow.

"All this undeniably proves that Washington, contrary to White House and Pentagon claims, is directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.

"It is the Biden administration that is directly responsible for all Kyiv-approved rocket attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure in populated areas of Donbas and other regions, which have resulted in mass deaths of civilians."

There was no immediate reaction to the ministry's allegations from the White House or Pentagon.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of carrying out devastating missile attacks on civilian targets on an almost daily basis. Both sides deny deliberately targeting civilians.

Deliveries of sophisticated long-range weapons systems from Western nations to Ukraine are seen as vital if Kyiv's forces are to turn the tide of the war, in which Russia relies heavily on long-distance bombardments of urban areas.

SAFE PASSAGE

Russia's verbal attack on Washington came after Turkey said that the first ship carrying Ukrainian grain since Russia's invasion blocked exports more than five months ago was on track to safely arrive in Istanbul on Tuesday night.

The vessel's departure on Monday from the Ukrainian port of Odesa for Lebanon via Turkey under a July 22 safe passage deal has raised hopes of further such departures, which could help ease a burgeoning global food shortage.

Turkey expects roughly one grain ship to leave Ukraine's Black Sea ports each day as long as the safe passage agreement holds, a senior Turkish official, who asked to remain anonymous, said on Tuesday.

The United Nations has warned of the risk of multiple famines this year because of the war in Ukraine.

Monday's sailing was made possible after Turkey and the United Nations brokered a grain and fertiliser export agreement between Russia and Ukraine - a rare diplomatic breakthrough in a conflict that has become a drawn-out war of attrition since Russian troops poured over the border on Feb. 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy, in his nightly address late on Monday, called the ship's departure "the first positive signal" but warned it was too early to predict how things would play out.

"We cannot have illusions that Russia will simply refrain from trying to disrupt Ukrainian exports," he said.

Ozcan Altunbudak, Turkey's representative at a coordination centre created to oversee the resumption of the grain exports, said on Tuesday the vessel, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, was on course to anchor at Istanbul on Tuesday night.

The only issue so far was a slight delay caused by bad weather, he said. The ship, carrying 26,527 tonnes of corn, was due to arrive in Istanbul at around midnight local time (2100 GMT).

It will then be inspected by Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and U.N. officials under the terms of the safe passage pact before continuing its journey to the Lebanese port of Tripoli, its planned final destination.

There are other hurdles to overcome, however, including clearing sea mines and creating a framework for vessels to safely enter the conflict zone and pick up cargoes.

Known as Europe's breadbasket, Ukraine hopes to export 20 million tonnes of grain held in silos and 40 million tonnes from the harvest now under way, initially from Odesa and nearby Pivdennyi and Chornomorsk, to help clear the silos for the new crop.

Russia has called the Razoni's departure "very positive" news. It has denied responsibility for the food crisis, saying Western sanctions have slowed its exports.

Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of laying mines that now float around the Black Sea and represent a hazard to shipping.

In Moscow on Tuesday, Russia's top court designated Ukraine's Azov Regiment a terrorist group, a Reuters correspondent in the courtroom said, paving the way for captured soldiers to be tried under tough anti-terror laws and be jailed for up to 20 years.

The Azov Regiment, which has far-right and ultra-nationalist roots, has been one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting Russia in eastern Ukraine. Having begun as a paramilitary unit to take on pro-Russian separatist rebels in 2014, it was later integrated into Ukraine's national guard.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich; editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Macfie)

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