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Russia fires warning shots at cargo ship in Black Sea

File photo shows Russian Navy patrol ship Vasily Bykov sails during the Navy Day parade in Kronstadt near Saint Petersburg, Russia July 26, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

A Russian warship has fired warning shots at a cargo ship in the southwestern Black Sea as it made its way northwards.

On Sunday, Russia issued a statement confirming that its Vasily Bykov patrol ship fired automatic weapons on a Sukru Okan vessel sailing under the flag of Palau. The decision came after the ship’s captain failed to respond to a request to halt an inspection of the potential carriage of prohibited goods.

"To forcibly stop the vessel, warning fire was opened from automatic weapons," the Russian defense ministry said.

Subsequently, the Russian military boarded the vessel with the help of a Ka-29 helicopter to inspect the dry cargo ship which Russia said it was en route to the Ukrainian port of Izmail.

"After the inspection group completed its work on board, the Sukru Okan continued on its way to the port of Izmail," the defense ministry said.

The incident holds significance as it marks the first time Russia has fired on merchant shipping beyond Ukraine since the country’s withdrawal from the UN-brokered grain deal.

Ukraine, however, did not immediately comment on the incident. Meanwhile, a Turkish defense ministry official said he had heard an incident had taken place involving a ship heading for Romania, and that Ankara was looking into it.

The grain deal, an agreement between Russia and Ukraine brokered by the UN and Turkey in July of the previous year, was established with the goal of releasing much-needed Ukrainian grain into the global market.

The initiative aimed to address food crises exacerbated by Russia's military operation in Ukraine in February 2022. Since its implementation, the Black Sea Grain Initiative facilitated the export of nearly 33 million metric tons of foodstuffs from Ukraine.

Last month, Russia refused to extend the year-old agreement on the grounds that it failed to meet Moscow’s expectations, including the ability to export its own food and fertilizers. The Kremlin also says Kiev is using the grain export corridor as a cover to launch terrorist attacks against Russian targets, which needed to be resolved, as well.

Moscow warned that any ship traveling to or from Ukrainian ports would be considered a potential target. Meanwhile, Kiev reciprocated with a similar threat against ships approaching Russian or Russian-held Ukrainian ports.

The expiration of the grain deal has heightened tensions around Ukraine's Black Sea port. The Russian military has struck Odessa, a major southern Ukrainian port, as well as the river ports of Izmaïl and Reni on several occasions. Ukraine, in turn, retaliated by striking the Russian port of Novorossiysk and several Russian vessels in the Black Sea, including an oil tanker.

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