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Ukraine, Russia parry over Russian aid convoy

By Alexander Roslyakov

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 14 2014 2:13 p.m. MDT

A convoy of white trucks with humanitarian aid moves from Voronezh towards Rostov-on-Don, Russia, early Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Russia on Tuesday dispatched some hundreds of trucks, although only a small proportion were counted in this convoy, covered in white tarps and sprinkled with holy water on a mission to deliver aid to a rebel-held zone in eastern Ukraine.

Pavel Golovkin, Associated Press

KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia — Raising the stakes in Ukraine's conflict, a Russian aid convoy of more than 200 trucks pushed up to the border on Thursday but then stopped, provocatively poised to cross into rebel-held territory.

The Ukrainian government threatened to use all means available to block the convoy if the Red Cross was not allowed to inspect the cargo. Such an inspection would ease concerns that Russia could use the aid shipment as cover for a military incursion in support of the separatists, who have come under growing pressure from government troops.

Ukraine also announced it was organizing its own aid shipment to the war-wracked separatist region of Luhansk.

Complicating the dispute over the dueling missions, Ukraine said Thursday it has gained control over a key town near Luhansk city, thereby giving it the means to block the presumed route that the Russian convoy would take to the city.

The town, Novosvitlivka, lies about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border, so if the Russian trucks did enter the country, they potentially could unload somewhere other than city itself.

The Russian convoy set out Thursday morning from a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh where it had been parked since late Tuesday. Moscow says the convoy has 262 vehicles, including about 200 trucks carrying aid.

The white-tarped trucks, some flying the red flag of Moscow and escorted by military vehicles, drove down a winding highway through sunflower fields and then turned west toward the rebel-held border crossing of Izvaryne.

But about 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the border, the trucks pulled off and parked in a large field where dozens of beige tents had been set up. Drivers in matching khaki shorts and shirts piled out and appeared to be stopping for the night.

The route suggested Russia has decided not abide by a tentative agreement to deliver aid to a government-controlled border checkpoint in the Kharkiv region, where it could more easily be inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross.

Taking Novosvitlivka "disrupted the last opportunity for movement between Luhansk and other territories controlled by Russian mercenaries," Ukrainian security council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters.

Lysenko also said that if the Russians refused to let the Red Cross inspect its cargo "the movement of the convoy will be blocked with all the forces available."

Ukraine suspects the convoy could be a pretext for a Russian military invasion or further support for the pro-Russian rebels it has been fighting since April.

After a clumsy and ineffectual start, Ukraine's forces have taken back much of the territory once held by rebels.

As the circle around the separatists tightens, two of their top figures have resigned in the past week. On Thursday, the rebel Donetsk People's Republic said its defense minister Igor Girkin had resigned.

Both Girkin and former rebel prime minister Alexander Borodai, who was replaced last week, are Russians and both were replaced by Ukrainians. Those moves could indicate an attempt by the separatists to distance themselves from allegations by Kiev and the West that Russia supports or directs the insurgency, charges that Russia denies.

The Russian convoy had been parked at a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh amid disagreement over how and where the aid could be delivered to eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has insisted it coordinated the dispatch of the goods — which it says range from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags — with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk said talks were continuing but she could not confirm where the Russian convoy was headed.

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