LUHANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Declaring it had lost patience with Ukraine’s stalling tactics, Russia sent over 130 aid trucks rolling into rebel-held eastern Ukraine on Friday without the approval of the government in Kiev. Ukraine called the move a “direct invasion” that aimed to provoke an international incident.
The unilateral move sharply raised the stakes in eastern Ukraine, for any attack on the convoy could draw the Russian military directly into the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the separatist rebels in the east. Ukraine has long accused Russia of supporting and arming the rebels, a charge that Russia denies.
After spending hours on winding country roads, the convoy in began pulling into the hard-hit city of Luhansk, which appeared to be mostly in the hands of the rebels, on Friday evening.
In the past few days, Ukraine said its troops had recaptured significant parts of Luhansk and suspicions were running high that Moscow’s humanitarian operation may instead be aimed at halting Kiev’s military momentum. Fierce fighting has been reported this week both around Luhansk and the largest rebel-held city, Donetsk, with dozens of casualties.
Speaking on national television, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk declared that Russia’s plan in sending half-empty trucks into Ukraine was not to deliver aid but to create a provocation by attacking the convoy itself, thus arranging a “provocation.”
Ukrainian security services chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko called the convoy a “direct invasion.”
Asked about that, Yatsenyuk replied that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began back in March when it annexed Crimea and has been going on ever since.
NATO’s secretary general condemned Russia for sending in the “so-called humanitarian convoy.” Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Russia’s unilateral decision ” a blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments” and “a further violation of Ukraine’ssovereignty.”
The white-tarped semis, which Russia says are carrying food, water, generators and sleeping bags, aimed to help citizens in Luhansk. The city has seen weeks of heavy shelling that has cut off power, water and phone lines and left food supplies scarce.
Four troops were killed and 23 wounded in the past 24 hours in eastern Ukraine, the government reported at noon Friday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which had planned to escort the Russian aid convoy to assuage fears that it was a cover for a Russian invasion, said it had not received enough security guarantees to do so Friday, as shelling had continued overnight in the area.
The swiftness with which Russia set the mission into motion last week and the lack of direct involvement from the international community immediately raised questions about Moscow’s intentions. AP journalists following the convoy across country roads heard the trucks’ contents rattling and sliding Friday, confirming that many vehicles were only partially loaded.
Nalyvaichenko, speaking to reporters in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, said the men driving the trucks into Ukraine were Russian military personnel “trained to drive combat vehicles, tanks and artillery.” The half-empty aid trucks would be used to transport weapons to rebels and spirit away the bodies of Russian fighters killed in eastern Ukraine, he said.
He insisted, however, that Ukraine would not shell the convoy.
Ukraine’s presidential administration said Kiev authorized the entrance of only 35 trucks. But the number of Russian vehicles entering the country through a rebel-held border point Friday was clearly way beyond that amount.
An Associated Press reporter saw a priest blessing the first truck in the convoy at the rebel-held checkpoint and then climbing into the passenger seat. A lone border guard unlocked a customs gate, and on the trucks went.
Russian customs service representative Rayan Farukshin said all vehicles in the convoy, which counts more than 260 trucks, had been checked and approved for onward travel. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said as of midday, 134 Russian aid trucks, 12 support vehicles and one ambulance had crossed into Ukraine.
“The Russian side has decided to act,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “It is no longer possible to tolerate this lawlessness, outright lies and inability to reach agreements … we are warning against any attempts to thwart this purely humanitarian mission.”
Although Luhansk is only 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the border, the Russian convoy took a meandering route, apparently in an effort to avoid areas controlled by Ukrainian troops.
Shortly after leaving the rebel-held border town of Izvaryne, the convoy turned off of the main highway to Luhansk and headed north on a country road. Rolling on small roads greatly slowed the trucks’ progress, turning what would in peacetime take roughly two hours into a daylong haul.
Rebel forces took advantage of Ukraine’s promise not to shell the convoy to drive on the same country road as the aid trucks. Around lunchtime, around 20 green military supply vehicles – flatbed trucks and fuel tankers – were seen traveling in the opposite direction. Other smaller rebel vehicles could be seen driving around.
The convoy moved along village roads hugging the Russian border, which is marked by the winding Seversky Donets River. In the village of Davydo-Mykilske, less than one kilometer (half a mile) west of the border, AP reporters saw three rebel tanks, dozens of militiamen and several armored personnel carriers.
The trucks from Moscow had been stranded in a customs zone for more than a week since reaching the border. The Russian Foreign Ministry voiced increasing frustration at what it said were Kiev’s efforts to stall its delivery, while Ukraine demanded that the trucks enter through a government-controlled border post so it could check their contents.
The Russian Foreign Ministry had accused the government in Kiev of shelling areas the convoy would have to pass through, making its travel impossible.
“There is increasingly a sense that the Ukrainian leaders are deliberately dragging out the delivery of the humanitarian load until there is a situation in which there will no longer be anyone left to help,” it said Friday in a statement.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry retorted with a statement accusing Russia of “ignoring international rules, procedures and agreements that have been reached.”
Last week, after the Russian aid convoy left Moscow, Ukraine mounted its own humanitarian operation for those affected by fighting in the east. The rebels have said, however, they will not allow that material to enter their territory.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Black Sea peninsula. It has killed over 2,000 people and forced 340,000 to flee, according to the United Nations.
Laura Mills in Moscow and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Ukraine, Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Ukraine, and Alexander Roslyakov in Donetsk, Russia, contributed to this report.