RUSSIA has sent more than 130 aid trucks rolling into rebel-held eastern Ukraine without Kiev’s approval, saying it had lost patience with the government’s stalling tactics.
Ukraine called the move a “direct invasion”.
The action sharply raised the stakes in eastern Ukraine – any attack on the convoycould draw the Russian military directly into the conflict between the Ukrainian government and separatist rebels.
Ukraine has long accused Russia of supporting and arming the rebels, a charge that Moscow denies.
Last night, a Pentagon spokesman called on Russia to immediately remove the convoy, saying the US “strongly condemns” the move.
Nato’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called it “a blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments” and “a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia”.
In the past few days, Ukraine says its troops have recaptured significant parts of Luhansk, the second-largest rebel city, and there are suspicions that Moscow’s aid operation may instead be aimed at halting Kiev’s military momentum.
Fierce fighting has been reported this week both around Luhansk – which is only 12 miles from the Russian border – and the largest rebel-held city, Donetsk, with casualties in the dozens.
Four troops were killed and 23 wounded in the past 24 hours in eastern Ukraine, the government reported yesterday.
The trucks covered in white tarpaulins, which Russia says are carrying food, water, generators and sleeping bags, are intended for civilians in Luhansk.
The city has seen weeks of heavy shelling that has cut off power, water and phone lines and left food supplies scarce.
However, speaking on national television, Prime Minister Arseniy Yastenyuk declared that Russia’s plan was not to deliver aid but to create a provocation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which had planned to escort the convoy to allay fears that it was a cover for a Russian invasion, said it had not received enough security guarantees to do so yesterday, as shelling had continued overnight in the area.
Eyewitnesses following the convoy across country roads heard the trucks’ contents rattling and sliding, confirming that many vehicles were only partially loaded.
Ukrainian security services chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko said the men driving the trucks were military personnel “trained to drive combat vehicles, tanks and artillery”.
The half-empty trucks would be used to transport weapons to rebels and spirit away the bodies of Russian fighters killed in eastern Ukraine, he said. He insisted, however, that Ukraine would not shell the convoy.
Ukraine officials said Kiev authorised the entrance of only 35 trucks.
But the number of vehicles entering through a rebel-held border point yesterday was clearly way beyond that. Reports claim a priest blessed the first truck at the checkpoint and then climbed into the passenger seat.
Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that 134 trucks, 12 support vehicles and one ambulance had crossed into Ukraine.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement: “It is no longer possible to tolerate this lawlessness, outright lies and inability to reach agreements. We are warning against any attempts to thwart this purely humanitarian mission.”