LUHANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Frustrated by a week of delays, 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.
Russia said it had lost patience with Ukraine's stalling tactics and claimed that soon "there will no longer be anyone left to help" in Luhansk, a war-torn rebel-held city that Ukrainian forces are trying to recapture.
The unilateral Russian sweep across the border drew strong condemnation from the European Union, the United States and NATO and 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.
Ukraine has long accused Russia of supporting and arming the rebels, a charge that Russia denies. Yet NATO said Friday that, since mid-August, it has seen "multiple reports of the direct involvement of including Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces in eastern Ukraine." It also said Russian artillery support is being used against Ukraine's armed forces and it has seen "transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery to separatists."
At the United Nations in New York, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, hotly denied that any Russian troops were inside Ukraine.
After spending hours driving up and down winding country roads, apparently to avoid any Ukrainian troops, the convoy began pulling into Luhansk on Friday evening. The city has seen weeks of heavy shelling that has cut off power, water and phone lines and left food supplies scarce.
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 the half-empty trucks Russia sent into Ukraine were not going to deliver aid but would be used to create a provocation. He said Russia would somehow attack the convoy itself, creating an international incident.
Ukrainian security services chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko called the Russian 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 a "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's sovereignty."
The swiftness with which Russia set the aid mission into motion last week and the lack of direct involvement from the international community immediately raised questions about Moscow's intentions.
Russia said the white-tarped semis were carrying food, water, generators and sleeping bags. AP journalists following the convoy across rough country roads heard the trucks' contents rattling and sliding around Friday, confirming that many vehicles were only partially loaded.
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, as shelling had continued overnight. Four troops were killed and 23 wounded in the past 24 hours in eastern Ukraine, the government reported Friday.
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 passing through a rebel-held border point Friday was clearly way beyond that.
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 the trucks began to roll by.
Russian customs service representative Rayan Farukshin said all vehicles in the convoy, which has 260 trucks, including over 200 aid 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, 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. Some 20 green military supply vehicles — flatbed trucks and fuel tankers — were seen traveling in the opposite direction, as well as other smaller rebel vehicles.
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 1 kilometer (half a mile) west of the border, AP reporters saw three rebel tanks, dozens of militiamen and several armored personnel carriers.
The Russian Foreign Ministry had accused the government in Kiev of shelling areas the convoy would have to pass through, making its travel impossible. The convoy had been stuck at the border for a week.
"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."
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.
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