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Ukraine launches new China trade route bypassing Russia

[ILLICHIVSK, UKRAINE] Ukraine on Friday launched the first cargo train to China that will bypass Russia along a new "Silk Road" meant to counter the Kremlin's most stringent trade embargo on Kiev to date.

"This is a historic event," Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Andriy Pyvovarskiy wrote on Facebook.

"Now, Ukraine is not just a potential transit country between the East and West, but one that has finally realised its potential." An AFP team near the Black Sea port of Odessa saw the first shipment being loaded onto a train that was then moved to a ferry destined for the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

The ceremony was attended by top ministers and Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili - the former Georgia president who waged a brief 2008 war with Russia and remains a hated figure in Moscow.

The 10-car and 20-container train will later cross the Caspian Sea and traverse Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan before reaching China nearly 12 days later.

It is partially loaded with iron ore and is due to bring back Chinese building materials and consumer goods.

Russia this month slapped new sanctions on Ukraine in response to its westward-leaning neighbour's decision to enter a much disputed free trade and political association agreement with the European Union.

Moscow's latest bans include transit restrictions on Ukrainian products to other former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Wednesday that the Kremlin's most recent steps against Kiev "significantly complicated" Ukraine's trade.

"An absence of several months from these markets would immediately see us lose them for good," Ukrainian Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius told reporters during the loading ceremony.