URALO-KAVKAZ, Ukraine -- Russia sent dozens of aid trucks into rebel-held eastern Ukraine on Friday without Kiev's approval, saying its patience had worn out with the Ukrainian government's stalling tactics. Ukraine called the move a "direct invasion."
The white-tarped semis carrying food, water, generators and sleeping bags sent from Moscow are intended for civilians in the city of Luhansk, where pro-Russian separatists are besieged by government forces. Shelling of the city has been ongoing for weeks, cutting off power, water and phone lines and leaving food supplies scarce.
In the past few days, Ukraine says its troops have recaptured significant parts of Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city, and suspicions are running high that Moscow's humanitarian operation may instead be aimed at halting Kiev's military momentum. Fierce fighting has been reported both around Luhansk and the largest rebel-held city, Donetsk, with dozens of casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which had planned to escort the Russian aid convoy to assuage fears that it was being used as a cover for a Russian invasion, said it had not received enough security guarantees to do so.
Ukrainian Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko told reporters in Kiev on Friday that the Russia move was a "direct invasion" which "happened for the first time under the cover of the Red Cross."
Nalyvaichenko insisted the men driving the aid trucks were Russian military forces trained to drive combat vehicles and said the half-empty trucks will be used to transport weapons to the rebels and take away the bodies of Russian fighters from eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine had authorized the entrance of a few dozen trucks, but the number of Russian vehicles entering the country through a rebel-held border point was clearly substantially more than the agreed-upon amount. Ukraine has accused Russia of supporting and arming the rebels, a charge Russia denies.
An Associated Press reporter saw a priest blessing the first truck in the convoy at the rebel-held checkpoint and then climbing into the passenger seat. A rebel commander on the scene said 34 trucks had gone through. On the Russia side of the border, an Associated Press reporter saw about 90 trucks going into the border customs zone.
The vehicles' immediate destination was not known and it was not clear whether Kiev had granted its approval.
"The Russian side has decided to act," said a statement on the Russian foreign ministry's website. "Our column with humanitarian aid is starting to move in the direction of Luhansk."
The Red Cross said in a statement on Twitter that it is not escorting the convoy due to security concerns, as shelling had continued overnight.
"We've not received sufficient security guarantees from the fighting parties," it said.
A rebel commander on the scene who identified himself only by the codename Kot said the trucks were headed for Luhansk.
Shortly after leaving the rebel-held border town of Izvaryne, the convoy left the main road to Luhansk and headed north onto a country road, parking in the village of Uralo-Kavkaz, possibly to avoid areas controlled by Ukrainian troops. In the early afternoon, part of the convoy proceeded further, but more trucks continued to arrive at the village.
The road on which the Russian trucks are traveling appears to be same one also being used by rebel forces. Around lunchtime, around 20 green military supply vehicles were seen traveling in the opposite direction to the convoy. Some were flatbed trucks, while others were fuel tankers.
The trucks from Moscow had been stranded in a customs zone for more than a week since reaching the border, as the two sides battled over where they should enter Ukraine. The Russian foreign ministry voiced increasing frustration at what it said were Kiev's efforts to stall its delivery, while Ukraine demanded that the trucks enter through a government-controlled border post.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has accused the government in Kiev of shelling residential areas that the convoy would have to pass through, thereby making its onward travel impossible.
"There is increasingly a sense that the Ukrainian leaders are deliberately dragging out the delivery of the humanitarian load until there is a situation in which there will no longer be anyone left to help," it said Friday in a statement.
In response to the Russian aid convoy, Ukraine's government mounted its own humanitarian supply operations for those affected by fighting in the east. The rebels have said they will not allow that material to enter their territory.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Black Sea peninsula. It has killed over 2,000 people and forced 340,000 to flee, according to the United Nations.