The first sixteen trucks of a convoy Russia says is carrying humanitarian supplies reached the border with Ukraine today as the two countries' top diplomats prepared to discuss a possible cease-fire and a way to let the aid cross the frontier.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will hold talks with Germany and France in Berlin to ease tensions after Ukrainian officials said their troops had destroyed part of an armored column from Russia. Under a deal reached yesterday, Ukraine agreed to let Russian aid cross into separatist-held territory under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said it would soon start checking the trucks.
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"Ukrainian and Russian border guards and customs officials have agreed to check the first batch of humanitarian aid at the border," International Red Cross spokeswoman Galina Balzamova said by phone. "The Red Cross will take part in the audit. It will start soon."
European leaders are pushing to halt the conflict that has killed more than 2,000 people and fractured Ukraine since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March. The war, which Ukraine and its allies say is being fueled by Russia's support for the rebels, has also touched off sanctions that have hurt trade and threatened to send President Vladimir Putin's economy into recession.
Ukrainian forces continued to be shelled from Russian territory, and authorities saw three Russian Grad artillery missile vehicles cross the border into Ukraine, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said today. Russia rejects U.S., EU and Ukrainian accusations that it's supplying the rebels with arms, men, financing and artillery support.
Ukraine has expressed concern that the Russian relief mission may be a guise for funneling more weapons to insurgents. Under yesterday's agreement, the mission of about 275 trucks will proceed through a border checkpoint and the ICRC will be responsible for distributing the aid.
Sergei Karavaitsev, head of Russian Emergencies Ministry's international department, said "we don't know" when asked by Bloomberg whether the first trucks may cross tonight.
"The Red Cross will take over and then they have to have their own logistics," Paul Picard, an observer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters near the border. "They must have a place somewhere in Ukraine to unload and then the trucks will return empty."
An aid shipment sent by the Ukrainian government was also handed to the Red Cross, said Iryna Herashchenko, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's envoy to eastern Ukraine.
Luhansk, a city of more than 400,000 where Ukrainian forces are trying to encircle the separatist rebels, went for its 15th day without power and water, the City Council said on its website. Tens of thousands have fled Luhansk and Donetsk, a city of about a million people, to escape the fighting.
The only way to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in the region is to pull back government troops, Oleg Tsarev, speaker of parliament of the separatist-held areas, said in an interview to Russian state TV Rossiya 24.
"Militias are the only hope now," Tsarev said. "The only way to stop the war is a quick military victory."
Ukraine and Russia have been sparring over claims by Ukraine on Aug. 15 that its troops attacked a military column from Russia that had crossed the border. Officials in Moscow denied the incident occurred after a journalist for the Guardian posted images of what they said were light armored assault vehicles moving over the frontier.
Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said Ukraine's comments on the armored column are based on "fantasies," RIA Novosti reported on Aug. 15. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Ukraine's statements "provocation," and part of an "information war."
Today's meeting in Berlin may be a first step toward a new peace summit, French President Francois Hollande's office said in a statement. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the talks were aimed at "restarting the political process." and agree on steps toward a cease-fire and a "framework for effective border controls."
"The conversation is not going to be easy." Klimkin said in a Twitter post. It's "hyper-important to stop inflow of mercenaries and weapons from Russia."
The conflict is coming to a head as Ukrainian government forces push to dislodge the insurgents from their strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Rebels shot down a Mig-29 fighter jet over Luhansk region, with the pilot ejecting from the aircraft, military spokesman Leonid Matyukin said on Facebook today.
Rebels have shot down more than 20 Ukrainian helicopters, warplanes and transport aircraft, including another Mig 29 on Aug. 8. They've used weapons that Ukrainian officials say include Russian-supplied Buk surface-to-air missiles like the one the U.S. says they used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last month, killing all 298 people on board.
Ten people died and eight were wounded by shelling in Donetsk over the last 24 hours, the city council said on its website. Lysenko said rebels had abducted at least 1,009 people since the government began its anti-separatist campaign.
Poroshenko spoke yesterday by phone with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and according to a White House statement, the two "agreed that Russia's sending military columns across the border into Ukraine and its continued provision of advanced weapons to the separatists was inconsistent with any desire to improve the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine."
Finnish President Sauli Niinistoe conferred with Poroshenko in Kiev yesterday, and said he carried with him a message from Putin, who he met a day earlier.
European Union governments have warned Putin they're ready to expand sanctions if the conflict worsens. Putin told Niinistoe during an Aug. 15 meeting that Russia doesn't want to see an escalating war of sanctions.
"A cease-fire is the primary goal," Niinistoe said. "That requires Russia to stop transporting armaments to Ukraine."
Putin, under increasing international pressure, pledged during a visit to Crimea last week that he would work to halt the conflict.