Russian humanitarian aid convoy heading towards eastern Ukraine yesterday
A convoy of 262 Russian trucks rolled toward the Ukrainian border yesterday as Kiev vowed to block the aid mission from its territory over fears it was a ploy to bolster pro-Kremlin rebels.
The convoy of what Russia says is humanitarian aid has sparked fears of an escalation in a conflict that has left hundreds dead in eastern Ukraine in recent months and plunged Moscow's ties with the West to their lowest point in decades.
France yesterday warned that Russia could use the operation as "a cover" for sending in troops, echoing earlier concerns from Washington, Berlin and London.
Kiev said the trucks would be stopped at the border for any aid to be unloaded and transported into conflict-torn eastern Ukraine with the help of the Red Cross.
"We will not allow (the aid) to be accompanied by the Russian ministry for emergency situations or by Russian troops," said Valeriy Chalyy, deputy head of the presidential administration.
However Moscow was adamant the convoy would reach its destination, calling for "maximum cooperation" from Ukraine to ensure the aid was delivered to the besieged rebel strongholds of Lugansk and Donetsk.
The three-kilometre-long aid convoy left Moscow yesterday for eastern Ukraine carrying 2,000 tonnes of "humanitarian supplies," including medical equipment, baby food and sleeping bags, Russian media reported.
The convoy was expected to arrive at the border later yesterday.
Meanwhile, as fierce fighting continued in the industrial east, Ukraine's military said six servicemen had been killed and 31 were wounded in the past 24 hours.
Seven civilians were also injured in shelling overnight in Donetsk, local authorities said, while Ukraine's military said it was ready to surround the rebels' second city of Lugansk.
Kiev's forces hope to cut off rebel access to the porous Russian border, where Nato says Moscow has massed 20,000 troops.
Russia has been pressing for a humanitarian mission to the east, where four months of fierce battles have left cities without power, running water or fuel, and with dwindling food supplies.
President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Moscow was sending aid in response to the "catastrophic consequences" of Kiev's offensive against insurgents.
Kiev has said it will only accept aid as part of a broader international mission involving Europe and the US under the supervision of the Red Cross.
Moscow -- which denies allegations it is seeking to boost the insurgents who are losing ground to Ukraine's military -- has insisted it is working with the Red Cross and that the convoy would not include military personnel.
Russia has also said the route of the convoy had been agreed with Kiev.
Adding to the confusion, the International Committee of the Red Cross said no green light had been given for an aid mission.
Over 1,300 people have been killed in four months of what the Red Cross has already deemed a civil war, while 285,000 have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.