KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia (AP) — Russia let Ukrainian officials inspect an aid convoy while it was still on Russian soil Friday and agreed that the Red Cross can distribute the goods in Ukraine’s rebel-held city of Luhansk. The twin moves aimed to dispel Ukrainian fears that the operation was a ruse to get military help to the pro-Russian separatists.
Breaking an earlier deal, Russia had sent the convoy of roughly 200 aid trucks toward a border crossing under the control of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, raising the prospect that it could enter without being inspected by Ukraine or the Red Cross.
Ukraine had vowed to use all means necessary to block the convoy in such a scenario, leading to fears of an escalation in the fighting that has ravaged eastern Ukraine since April.
Amid the tensions, AP reporters saw dozens of Russian military trucks and armored personnel carriers moving Friday around the area where the trucks were parked, about 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the border in a Russian field.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s security council, said some Russian military vehicles crossed into Ukraine – a charge that Russia denied. Lysenko did not specify the source of his information.
However, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday that the alliance had observed a Russian “incursion” into Ukraine.
“What we have seen last night is the continuation of what we have seen for some time,” he said during a visit to Copenhagen.
Despite the mutual distrust, the two sides reached an agreement early Friday and 41 Ukrainian border guards and 18 customs officials began inspecting the Russian aid in the field, defense officials in Kiev said.
“It has become possible to avoid the escalation of situation with the Russian humanitarian cargo, thanks to support from the international community,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was quoted as saying by his office.
In what looked like a new attempt at shuttle diplomacy, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Sochi and was set to travel to Ukraine on Saturday.
Putin seemed to struck a conciliatory note, saying after the talks that “we will do all we can to end the military conflict as soon as possible, establish a dialogue between the interested parties and provide humanitarian assistance.”
Sergei Astakhov of Ukraine’s border guards said Red Cross representatives would observe the inspections. Both sides also said the aid deliveries themselves would be carried out exclusively by the Red Cross.
Laurent Corbaz, the International Committee of the Red Cross’ director of operations in Europe, described a tentative plan in which the trucks would enter Ukraine with a single Russian driver each – as opposed to the current crew of several people in each truck – accompanied by a Red Cross worker. In line with Red Cross policy, there would be no military escort, he said.
However, some of the Russian military vehicles seen near the aid convoy Friday carried a Russian acronym that stands for “peacekeeping forces” – a signal that Moscow was considering a possible military escort.
Ukraine has warned Russia that an attempt to have any military personnel accompany the convoy would be seen as invasion.
Corbaz said the plan foresees the aid being delivered to a central point in rebel-held territory, then distributed through the region.
It was unclear how long the operation might last but “it’s not going to be solved in one week,” he said, adding that the Red Cross still had not received the security guarantees it needed to proceed in rebel territory.
The presence of aid distribution points in the city of Luhansk and other rebel-held areas could dampen Ukraine’s military operation to recapture all of eastern Ukraine from the rebels.
Luhansk has suffered extensively from an intense military barrage over the last few weeks. The city remains cut off from power and water supplies, while its mobile and landline telephone systems barely function, the city said Friday. Little food is available but bread is still being made using portable generators.
Officials say fighting and shelling between government troops and separatist rebels is continuing in eastern Ukraine and it remained unclear how that would affect the arrival of humanitarian convoys.
But the rebels appear to be losing significant ground. According to a map released Friday by Ukraine’s security council, the city of Luhansk is now surrounded by Ukrainian forces. The map shows Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, in a pocket cut off from the larger swath of rebel territory.
Meanwhile, Ukraine proceeded with its own aid operation in the Luhansk area. Trucks sent from the eastern city of Kharkiv were unloaded Friday at warehouses in the town of Starobilsk, where the goods were to be sorted and transported further by the Red Cross. Starobilsk is 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Luhansk.
Other Ukrainian aid was taken to the town of Lysychansk, which retaken by Ukrainian forces late last month but has seen sporadic clashes until earlier this week.
Dozens of houses showed signs of damage Friday in Lysychansk – some had windows blown out, while others had been blasted or burned to the ground. An Associated Press reporter saw small children playing in the rubble of one destroyed house.
As Ukrainian emergency workers discussed how to distribute the aid, clusters of older women and small children began appearing on the town’s streets. Residents said the aid was the first they had seen since fighting had ended.
The German and Russian foreign ministers discussed the possibility of declaring a truce to ensure the safety of the Russian aid convoy, Russia said. In a telephone conversation, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sergey Lavrov also discussed broader efforts to solve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany asked Russia for explanation about the report that Russian military vehicles had driven into Ukraine.
Russia’s Federal Security Service said in a statement that Russian forces were patrolling the border but denied that military vehicles had crossed into Ukraine.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has claimed nearly 2,100 lives, half of those in the last few weeks. It began in April, a month after Putin annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Jim Heintz and Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, Vitnija Saldava in Lysychansk, Ukraine; Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.