A CONVOY of 280 Russian trucks thought to be packed with aid was headed for eastern Ukraine yesterday – but Kiev said it would deny the mission entry because it could be a covert military operation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had no information on what the trucks were carrying or where they were going.
Leaders in Ukraine and the West have voiced concerns that Russia could use the initiative as a pretext for sending troops into separatist-held territory.
Russian television and news agencies reported 2,000 tonnes of aid was en route to Ukraine, where fighting between pro-Russian separatists and government forces has claimed 1,300 lives since April, according to a United Nations report.
Pro-Kremlin television channel NTV showed hundreds of white trucks gathered at a depot outside Moscow, and said they were carrying everything from baby food to sleeping bags.
The report also showed a Russian Orthodox priest sprinkling holy water on the trucks, some of which bore a red cross.
But Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security and defence council, said the convoy will not be allowed across the border.
“This convoy is not a certified convoy. It is not certified by the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Mr Lysenko said.
He also showed a covertly filmed video appearing to show vehicles similar to the white-canopied trucks dispatched from Moscow on Tuesday parked at a military base in Russia. One frame shows uniformed troops lined up in front of one the trucks.
André Loersch, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross mission in Ukraine, said that while the organisation had reached a general agreement about delivery of humanitarian aid to the region, he had “no information about the content” of the trucks and did not know where they were headed. “At this stage we have no agreement on this, and it looks like the initiative of the Russian Federation,” he said. Valeriy Chaly, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said Kiev had agreed to an arrangement whereby aid could be transferred across the border and reloaded on to trucks approved by the Red Cross. But the Ukrainian government has insisted that aid must cross at a government-held border crossing.
Mr Chaly suggested a suitable transfer point could be between Russia’s Belgorod region and Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, which has been spared major unrest.
Mr Chaly said any attempt to take humanitarian goods into Ukraine without authorisation would be viewed as an attack.
French president François Hollande took up the issue directly with Russian president Vladimir Putin, saying yesterday that any mission must be multilateral and have the agreement of the Red Cross and Ukraine.
Alexander Drobyshevsky, a spokesman for Russia’s emergency ministry claimed that his organisation had “not yet defined” where the trucks would cross the border.
Some of the heaviest impact on civilians from fighting has been seen in Luhansk, the rebel-held capital of the Luhansk province.
In their latest update on Monday, city authorities said residents had had no electricity or water for nine days. Much of the border with Luhansk province is under separatist control.
Kiev and the West have repeatedly opposed any Russian humanitarian aid mission to eastern Ukraine, fearing such a move could preface an intervention by Moscow. Throughout the conflict, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of aiding the rebels with arms and expertise, a charge that the Kremlin has denied.