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Ukraine: grain leaves port and calls grow for a probe into POWs' deaths

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The world food crisis prompted by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine may be showing signs of easing.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Tens of millions of tons of agricultural products have been trapped in Ukrainian ports because of the war. But this morning, for the first time since the outbreak of the war, the very first shipment holding grain has left Odesa. But meanwhile, violence is continuing, claiming the lives of dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Kyiv. Tim, let's start with the food crisis. Just over a week ago, the U.N. and Turkey helped put together a deal to export grain from Ukraine's Black Sea ports. And today, it sounds like there's progress.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Right. Well, so the first ship left the port of Odesa this morning carrying 26,000 tons of corn and flying the flag of Sierra Leone. It's bound for the city of Tripoli in Lebanon. It's a step forward in easing this food crisis that has developed due to the war in Ukraine. Now, you've got to remember that 40% of the world food programs' wheat supplies come from Ukraine. And food prices all over the world have soared since the war began. But the agreements between Russia, the U.N., Turkey, Ukraine, they're still tenuous. Just a day after these agreements were signed, Russian missiles struck the port of Odesa. And it raised questions about whether these deals would hold. The agreements also don't address another brewing crisis, and that's that President Zelenskyy said yesterday that Ukraine's harvest this year could be halved due to the war.

MARTINEZ: And just a few days ago, there was also a bombing of a prison in Russian-held territory holding Ukrainian prisoners of war. What do you know about that?

MAK: Well, you'll remember that we've spoken a lot about this group of Ukrainian soldiers that held out in a steel plant in Mariupol for nearly three months while being surrounded by Russian forces. These soldiers are viewed as heroes in Ukraine. And they ultimately surrendered to the Russians in a deal brokered by the Red Cross and the U.N. On Friday morning, the Russian government announced that a prison holding some of these prisoners had been bombed, killing dozens and injuring many more. Now, Russia claims that Ukraine bombed the prison, killing its own soldiers and using America-supplied HIMARS rockets. Ukraine has said that Russia bombed the prison in order to cover up the torture and execution of prisoners of war. And there's reason to doubt the Russian claim. The Washington, D.C., think tank the Institute for the Study of War had looked at the images of the attack after the attack. And they say that it doesn't really show the sort of damage that HIMARS would cause. The Russian foreign ministry has also announced that it has invited the Red Cross to investigate the site of the bombing in Russian-held eastern Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: And what has the U.S. government said about this?

MAK: Well, Bridget Brink, she's the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. She called the attack on the prison, quote, "unconscionable." Meanwhile, there's been this push in the U.S. government supported by the Ukrainian government to formally designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. This would trigger new sanctions on the Russian government and additional penalties for those doing business with the Russian government. Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a non-binding resolution calling on the Biden administration to make exactly that designation.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tim Mak is in Kyiv. Tim, thanks.

MAK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.