Kiev slams Russia’s aid convoy ‘invasion’ in east Ukraine

UN security Council calls urgent meeting after trucks headed for rebel-held region enter without permission.

A man waves a Russian flag as lorries in a Russian humanitarian convoy cross the Ukrainian border at the Izvarino custom control checkpoint on August 22, 2014. Sergey Venyavsky / AFP
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IZVARYNE, Ukraine // The West on Friday blasted Moscow for unilaterally sending a controversial aid convoy to east Ukraine’s rebel-held Luhansk in a move Kiev decried as an “invasion”.

The European Union said it “deplored” Russia’s decision to order in the convoy, which local officials said had begun arriving in Luhansk, without consent and called on Moscow to withdraw the trucks.

The UN Security Council was to hold snap consultations on the issue later on Friday, and Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Moscow’s decision an escalation of the Ukraine crisis that “can only lead to Russia’s further isolation”.

The US called on Moscow to “immediately” withdraw the convoy. “Failure to do so will result in additional costs and isolation,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin however said further delay of Moscow’s mission would have been “unacceptable” as he justified the decision in a phone conversation with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, who travels to Kiev on Saturday for talks with Ukraine’s leadership.

An official in Luhansk confirmed that about 20 trucks had reached the centre of the city, which has been without water and power for weeks, after making their way along a perilous route from the border.

Ukraine’s security service head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko earlier condemned the entry as “a direct invasion” but said Ukraine would not order air strikes on the trucks.

Ukraine and Russia both said the other side was responsible for the convoy’s security between the border and Luhansk, a rebel bastion 63 kilometres away, and Russia’s foreign ministry warned “against any attempts to disrupt a totally humanitarian mission”.

“We are doing everything in our power for this not to result in more serious consequences,” said the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

Meanwhile, Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said the country’s honorary consul in Luhansk had been kidnapped and killed by pro-Russian rebels.

“With deep sorrow just learned about Lithuania’s honorary consul in Lugansk Mr Mykola Zelenec kidnapped and brutally killed by terrorists there,” Mr Linkevicius, who is on a visit to Kiev, wrote on Twitter.

Russia has been pressing Ukraine to let its convoy of nearly 300 trucks reach residents in Luhansk for more than a week, but Kiev and the West fear the trucks could be used to bolster a flagging pro-Russian insurrection.

Analysts said Moscow was under pressure from the Russian public to show support for the Russian-speaking separatist regions, but that its unannounced convoy gambit was a big risk.

“Now the chances of direct military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers is substantially higher,” said Maria Lipman, an independent Moscow-based analyst.

Moscow said it was ready to have Red Cross officials accompany the convoy, but the organisation said it had backed out of the operation because of fierce fighting raging in the area where the trucks are heading.

“We are not part of the convoy in any way,” said Victoria Zotikova, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Moscow.

Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said more than 130 trucks had crossed the border by the afternoon.

Ukraine’s border service said its officials were “blocked” at the Russian checkpoint as the convoy started rolling across the border and had not checked many of the trucks.

After four months of fighting that has cost more than 2,200 lives, Ukrainian forces have been steadily gaining ground with the separatists now surrounded in several key strongholds and street battles erupting in populated areas.

Both Kiev and Moscow appear to be trying to strengthen their positions ahead of a meeting between Mr Poroshenko and Mr Putin in Minsk next Tuesday, alongside top EU officials.

On Thursday, Mr Poroshenko said his delegation was going to Minsk to “talk peace” but that he would stick to demands that pro-Russian fighters withdraw from east Ukraine.

The entry of the Russian convoy also exacerbates tensions ahead of Ms Merkel’s visit to Kiev in a show of support for Ukraine’s pro-western leaders.

Kiev has accused Moscow of fuelling the insurgency which erupted after Russia annexed Crimea in March, setting off the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Kiev’s security forces said on Friday that the military had made further gains in the east with “considerable enemy losses”.

* Agence France-Presse