Ukraine crisis: Russia aid convoy heads for border

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Media captionThe BBC's Steven Rosenberg said the convoy began moving before dawn

More than 100 lorries carrying Russian aid are heading towards the border with Ukraine, amid continuing confusion over their final destination.

The lorries have turned off on to a road towards a rebel-controlled border crossing in the Luhansk region.

A senior International Red Cross (ICRC) official, Laurent Corbaz, is flying to Kiev and then Moscow to discuss the Russian aid initiative.

The ICRC says Ukraine and Russia need to clarify border crossing procedures.

The situation is reported to be desperate in the rebel-held city of Luhansk, where for more than a week civilians have been short of water, food and electricity. Phone lines are also down as shelling continues.

Russia has dismissed as absurd claims that its convoy is a pretext to send military supplies to the rebels.

But Ukraine has said the convoy must be inspected by international monitors before it can be let in.

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg is following the convoy's progress and tweeted that military vehicles are escorting the big white lorries.

They are now about 35km (22 miles) from the border, and he says it is unclear what will happen when the convoy reaches the border.

Image caption Military vehicles are escorting the aid convoy through southern Russia (pic: BBC's Steve Rosenberg)

An ICRC spokeswoman, Anastasia Isyuk, said "the question of border crossing procedures and customs clearance (for the aid convoy) still has to be clarified between the two sides," Reuters news agency reported.

Ukrainian lorries carrying aid also set off on Thursday from Kiev, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, the Ukrainian news agency Unian reported. They were heading for Starobelsk in the Luhansk region.

In other developments:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is to make a speech in Crimea shortly, accompanied by Russian MPs. He will also speak to local people on the peninsula, annexed by Russia in March in a move that drew international condemnation
  • Mr Putin is to discuss the Ukraine crisis with Finland's President Sauli Niinisto on Friday in Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has intensified in recent weeks, with the UN saying there has been a spike in the number of deaths.

Some 2,086 people have been killed since the conflict began in mid-April, and more than half of them in the past two weeks, the UN said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The lorries were sprinkled with holy water before setting out
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Reports on Wednesday said the lorries were heading to the border in Kharkiv region

The head of the pro-Russian rebels in Luhansk, Valery Bolotov, says he is stepping down temporarily because of an injury and will be replaced by his "defence minister" Igor Plotnitsky. The rebels run the self-declared "Luhansk People's Republic" in defiance of Kiev.

Recently a new leader also took charge in the rebel "Donetsk People's Republic" - Alexander Zakharchenko.

The Russian convoy - reckoned to be 262 lorries - began its journey in the Moscow region on Tuesday.

On Tuesday night they parked at a military base in the southern city of Voronezh. Then on Wednesday the Ukrainian authorities said the convoy would not be allowed into the Kharkiv region, which is under Ukrainian government control.

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg says more than 100 lorries set off southwards before dawn on Thursday.

Russia announced its intention to send a convoy earlier this week, saying it was in discussions with Ukraine's government and the Red Cross.

But Ukraine's government seemed unwilling to let the convoy cross into its territory.

The fighting in the east began when pro-Russian rebels seized government buildings and tried to declare independence.

The military launched an operation to retake the east, and stepped up its activities in June.