KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia (AP) — Russia let Ukrainian officials inspect an aid convoy on Friday and agreed to let the Red Cross distribute the aid around the rebel-held city of Luhansk, easing tensions and dispelling Ukrainian fears that the aid operation is a ruse to get military help to separatist rebels.
In violation of an earlier tentative agreement, Russia had sent the convoy of roughly 200 trucks to a border crossing under the control of pro-Russia separatists, raising the prospect that it could enter Ukraine without being inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross. Ukraine vowed to use all means necessary to block the convoy in such a scenario, leading to fears of escalation in the conflict.
Adding to the tensions, a dozen Russian armored personnel carriers appeared early Friday near where the trucks were parked for the night, 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the border. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s security council, said some Russian military vehicles crossed into Ukraine — a charge Russia denied.
Despite mutual distrust, the two sides reached an agreement Friday morning, and 41 Ukrainian border guards and 18 customs officials began inspecting the Russian aid at the border crossing, defense officials in Kiev said in a statement. Sergei Astakhov, an assistant to the deputy head of Ukraine’s border guard service, said Red Cross representatives would observe the inspections.
Both sides also said that 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 crew of several people currently in each truck — accompanied by a Red Cross worker. In line with Red Cross policy, there would be no military escort, he said.
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.
The details were still being negotiated by all sides, including the insurgents, Corbaz said in Kiev, and the Red Cross still had not received the security guarantees it needs to proceed.
The presence of aid distribution points in Luhansk and other rebel-held areas could have the effect of dampening the force of the assault by Ukrainian government troops.
The German and Russian foreign ministers discussed the possibility of declaring a truce to ensure the safety of the aid convoy, Russia said. In a telephone conversation, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sergey Lavrov also discussed broader efforts aimed at political settlement of the conflict.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the Ukrainian accusation of Russian military vehicles crossing the border is very serious.
“It is very clear that if this report turns out to be true, Russia would be urgently called upon to withdraw these vehicles across its border at once,” Seibert said.
Russia’s Federal Security Service said in a statement that Russian forces are patrolling the border area, but denied that military vehicles have moved into Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine proceeded with its own aid operation in the Luhansk area. Trucks sent from the eastern city of Kharkiv were unloaded Friday morning at warehouses in the town of Starobilsk, where the goods will be sorted and transported further by the Red Cross. Starobilsk is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Luhansk.
The aid missions from both Ukraine and Russia come as the eastern rebels appear to continue to lose ground against Ukrainian forces. According to a map released by Ukraine’s security council on Friday, 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.
Jim Heintz and Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine; Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.