A massive Russian “humanitarian” convoy closed in on Ukraine’s border on Thursday despite doubts over whether the trucks would be allowed across, and as deadly fighting rocked rebel-held strongholds.
The nearly 300 vehicles headed towards southeastern Ukraine, even as intense shelling there in the insurgent bastions of Donetsk and Lugansk – where the trucks appear headed – sharply increased the death toll from fighting.
Health authorities in Donetsk, the centre of which was under heavy shelling by the army, said 74 people were killed in fighting over the past three days. Government forces at the same time reported nine dead and 18 injured among its troops, following four months of fighting that have left over 2,000 dead and many residents without power, running water and with dwindling food supplies.
Meanwhile, Ukraine dispatched aid convoys of its own from three cities to a government-held eastern town as it tried to race Moscow to hand out much-needed aid to residents in the blighted region. The Russian convoy, a three-kilometre (two-mile) file of white-tarpaulin-covered lorries, reached the Rostov region in southwestern Russia Thursday, a spokesman for the Russian emergencies ministry in Moscow told AFP.
It was not immediately clear when the trucks would arrive at the border or whether Ukrainian officials would allow them to pass. The convoy had earlier headed for government-controlled territory in the region of Kharkiv further west, with Kiev insisting only the aid and not the lorries would be allowed to cross the border.
On Wednesday however, President Petro Poroshenko’s office suggested the aid could travel more directly to the stricken east and be allowed into Ukraine under certain conditions. Fears have mounted that the lorries rumbling toward the border could spark an escalation in a conflict that has already brought ties between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Ukraine and the West have warned that Moscow’s operation could be a “Trojan horse” bringing military help to pro-Russian insurgents, who have been losing ground to government troops in the east. Moscow denies the allegations, insisting the aid operation was coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and that no military escort accompanied the lorries.