This handout video grab released by Russian Presidential Press Office on March 19, 2023, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Mariupol. (PHOTO / AP)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin toured the city of Mariupol, Russian state news reported on Sunday, in what would be the Kremlin leader's first trip to the Donbas region since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in February last year.

Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter before driving a car around the city, Tass news agency reported.

In Mariupol, he visited different sites, spoke with residents, and was presented with a report on the reconstruction work of the city, according to the state-run media.

The state Rossiya 24 channel on Sunday showed Putin chatting with locals outside what looked like a newly built residential complex, and being shown around one of the apartments.

Following his trip to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city some 180 kilometers further east, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Speaking to the state RIA agency Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its blasted downtown by the end of the year.

"People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning," Khusnullin told RIA.

In Turkiye's capital Ankara, a deal allowing the safe Black Sea export of Ukrainian grain was renewed on Saturday for at least 60 days — half the intended period — after Russia warned any further extension beyond mid-May would depend on the removal of some Western sanctions.

The pact was brokered with Russia and Ukraine by the United Nations and Turkiye in July and renewed for a further 120 days in November. The deal was to expire on Saturday.

The UN and Turkiye said on Saturday that the deal had been extended, but did not specify for how long.

Ukraine said it had been extended for 120 days. But Russia's cooperation is needed and Moscow has only agreed to renew the pact for 60 days.

"The Black Sea Grain Initiative, alongside the memorandum of understanding on promoting Russian food products and fertilizers to the world markets, are critical for global food security, especially for developing countries," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

Russia and Ukraine are key global suppliers of food commodities and Russia is also a top exporter of fertilizers.

Ukraine's Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky said Ukraine had supplied nearly 500,000 metric tons of wheat for UN aid programs, and insisted on Saturday that the Black Sea export pact had been extended for 120 days and was an opportunity to keep helping those in need and "save the world from hunger".

A three-year deal was also struck in July in which the UN agreed to help Russia with its food and fertilizer exports.

Agencies via Xinhua