Ukraine and Russia foreign ministers to meet as tensions rise

Ukraine's claim of attacking a Russian military vehicles that entered its territory sets off flurry of diplomatic activity, while fate of massive aid convoy sent by Moscow remains unresolved.

A Russian armoured vehicle outside the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, about 30 km from the border with Ukraine, where a Russian aid convoy is waiting to cross over.  Yuri Kochetkov / EPA / August 15, 2014
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KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia // Diplomatic efforts to douse an international firestorm over claims that Ukraine’s forces destroyed Russian military vehicles ratcheted up on Saturday as Moscow demanded that Kiev allow its mammoth aid convoy to cross the volatile border.

Moscow and Kiev’s foreign ministers prepared for an urgent meeting with their French and German counterparts on Sunday after the United States blasted Russia for its “extremely dangerous” escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.

The French president Francois Hollande meanwhile urged Ukraine to show “restraint and good judgement” as it pushed on with an offensive to oust insurgents after four months of fighting that has killed more than 2,000 people and left the region facing a humanitarian disaster.

The latest spike in tensions came after the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, claimed his troops had blown up part of a small Russian military convoy that British media spotted breaching the frontier on Thursday.

Russia dismissed the claims as “fantasies”, its latest denial of persistent allegations from the West that it is arming the rebels.

Amid the international slanging match, about 280 trucks packed with what Russia claims is humanitarian aid waited for a third day some 30 kilometres from a rebel-held border post as Moscow and Kiev haggled over letting it across.

The West and Kiev fear the convoy could be a Trojan horse to bolster the flagging pro-Kremlin rebellion in eastern Ukraine or provide Moscow with an excuse to send in the 20,000 troops that Nato says it has amassed on the border.

Russia’s foreign ministry has repeatedly demanded in recent days that Kiev cease fire in order for the aid to reach residents of blighted cities in the east who have been stuck for days without water or power.

Ukraine says it has sent scores of border officials to the Russian side to examine the aid cargo but that they are waiting for permission from the Red Cross to start work.

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross – which is meant to be overseeing the operation – said inspections had not started as negotiations continue.

“There was a meeting this morning between the Ukrainians and the Russians. We did not participate,” said Galina Balzamova. “We are still waiting for agreement” between them.

While Russia has denied all claims it is funnelling weapons to the rebels, a top separatist leader claimed that reinforcements trained across the border had arrived to prop up the ailing insurgency.

A fresh injection of firepower consisted of 150 pieces of hardware and 1,200 personnel “who have received four months of training on Russian territory,” Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video posted on a rebel website.

“They have been brought in at the most crucial moment,” he said.

In Donetsk, the largest rebel bastion, shelling could be heard on Saturday as government troops tightened their position around separatist fighters holed up there.

Human Rights Watch quoted residents fleeing Luhansk – the rebels’ second-largest stronghold that has seen some of the worst fighting – as saying that the city was cut off from electricity, gas, and cell-phone coverage, and that it was difficult to find drinking water and food.

The United Nations says more than 285,000 people have fled the fighting in the east.

Ukraine’s security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said on Saturday that three soldiers had died and 13 were wounded in the previous 24 hours.

President Poroshenko meanwhile wrote on Twitter that the army had taken over Zhdanivka, a town about 45 kilometres northeast of Donetsk.

A flurry of diplomacy to calm tensions saw Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany agree to get their top diplomats together for a meeting in Berlin on Sunday.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the Bild newspaper that he hoped the talks would help “put an end to violent fighting” in eastern Ukraine and provide the territories with “urgent and necessary aid”.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, had said on Friday that the sides “need to talk”.

The French presidency suggested that Sunday’s meeting could be a “first step” towards another face-to-face encounter between the heads of state.

* Agence France-Presse