Fears mounted on Saturday in Ukraine of a possible Russian invasion in the guise of a “humanitarian” mission to the conflict-torn east where Kiev said another 13 of its troops died in fighting with pro-Moscow rebels.
The United States has warned that any unilateral intervention by Russia, including in the form of a humanitarian mission, would be considered an invasion.
Shelling meanwhile continued in the rebels’ main eastern stronghold of Donetsk, which has become the new battleground in the four-month conflict between Ukrainian government forces and eastern separatists.
An AFP journalist heard repeated shelling in the city throughout the morning. Local authorities said mortar fire hit neighbourhoods north and southwest of the centre, and one person was killed.
Ukraine’s forces, which have been battling to wrest control of eastern strongholds from the rebels, which the West believes to be backed by Russia, reported 13 casualties in the last 24 hours.
The Red Cross also announced it was stepping up its aid activities in Donetsk and the second main insurgent bastion of Lugansk where local authorities have warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe with many residents left without water and power for days.
A top official from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s office revealed late on Friday that Kiev had managed through diplomatic channels to halt a Russian convoy, including troops and military hardware, advancing towards the border under the guise of a humanitarian mission.
“The Ukrainian side has reasonable grounds to believe that the convoy could be used to further escalate tensions,” the foreign ministry added on Saturday.
The Red Cross acknowledged that it had received an offer from Moscow to organise aid convoys, and would welcome any effort to ease civilian suffering in the region, but denied that any such action had taken place.
NATO says Russia has 20,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, fuelling fears that Moscow could send them into its former Soviet neighbour.
US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power on Friday slammed Russian proposals to set up humanitarian corridors to east Ukraine.