Ukraine retakes eastern town as Russian aid convoy stops at border
Ukrainian government worries convoy could be cover for invasion
Raising the stakes in Ukraine's conflict, a Russian aid convoy of more than 200 trucks pushed up to the border on Thursday but then stopped, provocatively poised to cross into rebel-held territory.
- Ukraine-bound Russian convoy stuck amid bickering
- Ukraine conflict: Russia must 'step back from the brink,' NATO chief says
- Are sanctions on Russia beginning to bite?
The United States has warned Russia that it needs to secure Ukraine's permission for the convoy to enter.
"We've made that very clear to the Russians that they should not move these trucks in, without taking all of the steps the Ukrainian government has outlined," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday.
Amid the tensions surrounding the convoy, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso called Russian and Ukrainian leaders to arrange three-way consultations on ways to de-escalate the crisis. Barroso's office said that details will be worked out through diplomatic channels.
Ukraine also announced it was organizing its own aid shipment to the war-wracked separatist region of Luhansk.
Complicating the dispute over the duelling missions, Ukraine said Thursday it has gained control over a key town near Luhansk city, thereby giving it the means to block the presumed route that the Russian convoy would take to the city.
The Russian convoy set out Thursday morning from a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh where it had been parked since late Tuesday. Moscow says the convoy has 262 vehicles, including about 200 trucks carrying aid.
The white-tarped trucks, some flying the red flag of Moscow and escorted by military vehicles, drove down a winding highway through sunflower fields and then turned west toward the rebel-held border crossing of Izvaryne.
But about 28 kilometres from the border, the trucks pulled off and parked in a large field where dozens of beige tents had been set up. Drivers in matching khaki shorts and shirts piled out and appeared to be stopping for the night.
The route suggested Russia has decided not to abide by a tentative agreement to deliver aid to a government-controlled border checkpoint in the Kharkiv region, where it could more easily be inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross.
Taking Novosvitlivka "disrupted the last opportunity for movement between Luhansk and other territories controlled by Russian mercenaries," Ukrainian security council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters.
Lysenko also said that if the Russians refused to let the Red Cross inspect its cargo "the movement of the convoy will be blocked with all the forces available."
After a clumsy and ineffectual start, Ukraine's forces have taken back much of the territory once held by rebels.
As the circle around the separatists tightens, two of their top figures have resigned in the past week. On Thursday, the rebel Donetsk People's Republic said its defence minister Igor Girkin had resigned.
Both Girkin and former rebel prime minister Alexander Borodai, who was replaced last week, are Russians and both were replaced by Ukrainians. Those moves could indicate an attempt by the separatists to distance themselves from allegations by Kiev and the West that Russia supports or directs the insurgency, charges that Russia denies.
The Russian convoy had been parked at a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh amid disagreement over how and where the aid could be delivered to eastern Ukraine.
Moscow has insisted it coordinated the dispatch of the goods — which it says range from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags — with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
'The plans keep changing'
ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk said talks were continuing but she could not confirm where the Russian convoy was headed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, addressed hundreds of lawmakers Thursday in the Black Sea resort of Yalta in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March. He did not speak specifically about the convoy.
In a relatively subdued address, Putin said Russia's goal was "to stop bloodshed in Ukraine as soon as possible." Moscow should improve life in Ukraine "without building a wall from the West," he said, but asserted that Russia would "not allow anyone to treat us with arrogance."
The Ukrainian government in Kiev countered Putin's aid convoy by announcing one of its own.
Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Maxim Burbak said three convoys totalling 75 trucks were transporting 800 tons of humanitarian aid — including grain, sugar and canned food— from Kiev and the cities of Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. Their eventual destination was Luhansk, he said.
Ukrainian forces have stepped up efforts to dislodge the separatists from their last strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk and there was more heavy shelling overnight.
In Washington, Harf said that Washington has "stressed the importance of showing restraint to minimize" civilian casualties.
The sounds of artillery fire and blasts could be heard all over Donetsk on Thursday. Shells hit two shopping complexes, city authorities said, warning citizens to stay off the streets.
Valentina Smirnova, a resident of Donetsk, cleaned up broken glass and rubble Thursday in her damaged kitchen.
"My son left and now I am staying with my daughter. I don't know what to do afterward. Where should I run to after that? Please tell me!" she said, tears welling up.
The U.N.'s human rights office in Geneva says the death toll in eastern Ukraine has nearly doubled in the last two weeks — rising to at least 2,086 as of Aug. 10, up from 1,129 on July 26.