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EXCLUSIVE: Boris Johnson signals UK willingness to remove mines, help Ukraine export grain

KIGALI (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday Britain was ready to help clear mines off Ukraine’s southern coast and was considering providing ship insurance to transport millions of tons of grain stuck in the country.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the imposition of a blockade of its Black Sea ports prevented the country, traditionally one of the world’s largest food producers, from exporting much of the more than 20 million tons of grain stored in its silos.

This has helped push food prices to record levels and leave tens of millions of people struggling to eat, a crisis that Western officials say could last two years.

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Turkey is trying to broker talks between the United Nations, Ukraine and Russia to create a possible safe sea lane in the Black Sea, but Moscow wants some Western sanctions to be lifted first to facilitate its grain and fertilizer exports.

“There is work to be done. We are working with the Turks and other European friends and allies to see what we can do,” Johnson told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Rwanda for a Commonwealth summit.

The London insurance market has put the entire region on the high risk list which means higher freight costs.

Johnson said Britain was considering all options when asked if the government could provide sovereign guarantees to secure shipping.

“What the UK can offer, in the first place, is expertise when it comes to marine insurance, a lot of experience moving goods through them if we say disputed sea areas,” he said.

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Asked if Britain would be willing to help Ukraine remove mines from the region, Johnson said: “Yes, I don’t want to go into technical or military details, but you can take that from what we’ve already done supplying equipment to the Ukrainians. Help themselves protect ourselves because we’re talking to them.” Certainly at the technical level to help clear the mines from Odessa. ”

Any demining effort would be the largest since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and any demining project off Ukraine would take several months.

Separately, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Thursday that urgent action must be taken over the next month before the next harvest to conserve supplies.

food crisis

Britain, the United States and the European Union, which supplies Ukraine with weapons, have accused Russia of fueling the food crisis by blocking grain exports from Ukraine – which accounts for about a tenth of global wheat exports.

In a statement late on Thursday, Britain pledged 372 million pounds ($456 million) to help countries hit hard by rising global food costs and fertilizer shortages, including 130 million pounds for the World Food Programme.

Britain said its funding would provide humanitarian aid to increase access to food in the worst-affected African countries.

The European Union foreign policy chief said earlier this week that Russia was committing a war crime by preventing the export of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said this month that millions of people could starve due to the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which he said has brought the world “on the brink of a terrible food crisis”.

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Russia denies responsibility for the food crisis, blaming it for Western sanctions imposed on Moscow that have led to a jump in global food prices. It also says that the West is spreading lies about the causes of the crisis. Read more

While Johnson acknowledged that there were several factors behind the high rates of food price inflation, he accused Putin of trying to get the world to “demand ransom” because of the blockade.

“It is absolutely unreasonable,” he said. “This offer can help people around the world, and it can help some of the world’s poorest countries.”

(dollar = 0.8158 pounds)

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Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London and Nashet Jogi in Bengaluru. Editing by Alison Williams

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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