Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA
KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia – Europe voiced alarm Friday, August 15, over reports that Moscow had sent military hardware into conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, as Kiev prepared to inspect a controversial Russian "aid" convoy parked up at the border.
Tensions, already high over fears Moscow could use its humanitarian mission as a "Trojan horse" to help rebels, spiraled further after Ukraine's military confirmed British media reports that a small convoy of Russian armored vehicles was seen breaching the frontier.
"If there are any Russian military personnel or vehicles in Ukraine they need to be withdrawn immediately or the consequences will be very serious," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.
Moscow has denied the allegations, the latest claims from the West that it has sent armor across the border to help pro-Kremlin separatists who launched an insurgency against Kiev in April.
The fate of the Russian aid convoy remained unclear despite Kiev appearing ready to let it cross into rebel-held territory after days of wrangling.
Kiev said 59 border officials were at a Russian border post to inspect the 300-truck convoy and were waiting for permission from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
'Speed of the essence'
The ICRC said Russia and Ukraine were ironing out details over the shipment and once an agreement was reached it would deliver the aid.
"People are struggling to cope with limited access to basic services such as water and electricity, so speed is of the essence," said Laurent Corbaz, ICRC head of operations for Europe and Central Asia.
A representative of Russia's emergency situations ministry said however the trucks could remain parked up some 30 kilometers away "for several days," state news agency RIA
Novosti reported, without elaborating.
Ukraine fears the convoy is a ploy to help to pro-Russian insurgents, as their rebellion has showed signs of unravelling after four months of fighting that has left more than 2,000 people dead including children and sent around 285,000 fleeing their homes.
Top rebel military chief Igor Strelkov and another key commander announced Thursday they were quitting after Ukraine's military said it had completely surrounded Lugansk, cutting all links to the border with Russia.
Ukraine's military said troops were pushing on with their offensive by retaking three small towns, while fierce clashes were also reported on the outskirts of Lugansk, where local officials have spoken of a humanitarian crisis.
Five soldiers were killed in fighting in the past 24 hours, it said.
British newspapers reported Thursday that their correspondents had seen a column of armored personal carriers and military trucks crossing into Ukraine.
"Intelligence has confirmed that a column of APCs and Ural military lorries has crossed the border and entered Ukrainian territory," the Kiev military said.
Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard said the EU – which with the United States has imposed a raft of sanctions against Russia – was "deeply concerned by Russian behavior over the last months but also the last hours."
"We think that the Russian authorities should be aware that both in the EU and the US we have a very strong commitment to respond to any new aggression from Russia," he said.
Washington, while reiterating its support for Kiev, has urged its ally to exercise "restraint" and keep civilian casualties to a minimum after intense shelling in the main besieged rebel strongholds of Lugansk and Donetsk.
The death toll continues to climb, with shelling in Donetsk killing 11 civilians over the past 24 hours, local authorities said.
An Agence France-Presse journalist in Donetsk heard sporadic shelling from a suburb and saw rebels driving howitzer cannons into the city center.
Russian media reports say the convoy of white-tarpaulin-covered trucks, which left the Moscow region on Tuesday, was carrying more than 1,800 tons of supplies including medical equipment, baby food, sleeping bags and electric generators.
Kiev had initially said it would not allow the trucks to enter but later suggested the aid could come in if it was inspected by Ukrainian border guards and international monitors.
Ukrainian officials say their aid convoys to the east – some 75 lorries with 800 tons of aid – had also started to arrive at a government-held town some 100 kilometers north of Lugansk.
The aid would be distributed by the Red Cross in rebel-held territory, officials said, as they raced to beat Moscow in delivering assistance to residents in the city which has been without water, electricity and fuel for over a week. – Rappler.com