KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia (AP) — Russia let Ukrainian officials inspect an aid convoy while it was still on Russian soil Friday and agreed that the Red Cross can distribute the goods in Ukraine’s rebel-held city of Luhansk. The twin moves aimed to dispel Ukrainian fears that the operation was a ruse to get military help to the pro-Russian separatists.
Violating an earlier deal, Russia had sent the convoy of roughly 200 aid trucks toward a border crossing under the control of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, raising the prospect that it could enter Ukraine without being inspected by Ukraine or the Red Cross.
Ukraine had vowed to use all means necessary to block the convoy in such a scenario, leading to fears of an escalation in the fighting that has ravaged eastern Ukraine since April.
Adding to the tensions, a dozen Russian armored personnel carriers appeared early Friday near where the trucks were parked for the night, 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the border. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s security council, said some Russian military vehicles crossed into Ukraine — a charge that Russia denied. Lysenko did not specify the source of his information.
Despite mutual distrust, the two sides reached an agreement early Friday and 41 Ukrainian border guards and 18 customs officials began inspecting the Russian aid in the Russian field, defense officials in Kiev said.
Sergei Astakhov, an assistant to the deputy head of Ukraine’s border guard service, said Red Cross representatives would observe the inspections. Both sides also said the aid deliveries themselves would be carried out exclusively by the Red Cross.
Laurent Corbaz, the International Committee of the Red Cross’ director of operations in Europe, described a tentative plan in which the trucks would enter Ukraine with a single Russian driver each — as opposed to the current crew of several people in each truck — accompanied by a Red Cross worker. In line with Red Cross policy, there would be no military escort, he said.
Corbaz said the plan foresees the aid being delivered to a central point in rebel-held territory, then distributed through the region.
It was unclear how long the operation might last but “it’s not going to be solved in one week,” he said.
Corbaz said the Red Cross still had not received the security guarantees it needs to proceed in rebel territory.
The presence of aid distribution points in the city of Luhansk and other rebel-held areas could dampen the military operation by Ukrainian government troops to recapture all of eastern Ukraine from the rebels.
Luhansk has suffered extensively from an intense military barrage over the last few weeks and is the focus of humanitarian efforts. The city remains cut off from power and water supplies and mobile and landline telephone systems barely function, the city said Friday. Little food is available in the shops but bread is still being made using portable power generators.
Officials say fighting and shelling between government troops and separatist rebels is still continuing and it remained unclear how that would affect the arrival of humanitarian convoys.
The eastern rebels appear to be losing significant ground recently to Ukrainian forces. According to a map released Friday by Ukraine’s security council, the city of Luhansk is now surrounded by Ukrainian forces. The map shows Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, in a pocket cut off from the larger swath of rebel territory.
Meanwhile, Ukraine proceeded with its own aid operation in the Luhansk area. Trucks sent from the eastern city of Kharkiv were unloaded Friday at warehouses in the town of Starobilsk, where the goods were to be sorted and transported further by the Red Cross. Starobilsk is 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Luhansk.
Other Ukrainian aid was taken to the Luhansk region town of Lysychansk, which retaken by Ukrainian forces late last month, but has seen sporadic clashes until earlier this week.
Dozens of houses showed signs of damage in Lysychansk on Friday — some had windows blown out, while others had been blasted or burned to the ground. An Associated Press reporter saw small children playing in the rubble of one destroyed house.
As Ukrainian emergency service workers discussed how to distribute the aid, clusters of older women and small children began appearing on the streets. Residents said the aid was the first they had seen since fighting had ended.
The German and Russian foreign ministers discussed the possibility of declaring a truce to ensure the safety of the aid convoy, Russia said. In a telephone conversation, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sergey Lavrov also discussed broader efforts aimed at political settlement of the conflict.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the Ukrainian accusation of Russian military vehicles crossing the border was very serious.
“It is very clear that if this report turns out to be true, Russia would be urgently called upon to withdraw these vehicles across its border at once,” Seibert said.
Russia’s Federal Security Service said in a statement that Russian forces were patrolling the border but denied that military vehicles have moved into Ukraine.
Jim Heintz and Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, Vitnija Saldava in Lysychansk, Ukraine; Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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