Doubts over Russian ‘aid’ as convoy nears Ukraine

Moscow insists Kiev has allowed 287 trucks head to rebels' battle-scarred strongholds

A Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine proceeds near the city of Yelets yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

A Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine proceeds near the city of Yelets yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Wed, Aug 13, 2014, 01:00

Russia insisted it has permission from Kiev to drive 287 trucks of humanitarian aid to the strongholds of pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine, despite international fears over Moscow’s intentions.

Ukraine’s government and its western allies fear Moscow may use the convoy for stealthy intervention in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where Kiev’s forces are gaining the upper hand over separatist gunmen who want the regions to join Russia.

United Nations agencies say more than 700,000 people have fled Ukraine for Russia in recent months, and more than 100,000 have been displaced in Ukraine during fighting that has killed some 1,500 people.

Russia is demanding the provision of urgent aid to Donetsk and Luhansk, and its convoy is expected to arrive today at the border crossing of Shebekino, from where it will pass into a government-controlled area of eastern Ukraine.

Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said everything had been agreed with Kiev, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UN and 57-state Organisation for Security for Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Not taken at face value

“We agreed that our trucks would carry Ukrainian registration plates while en-route through Ukraine, and that not only ICRC and OSCE representatives, but also representatives of the Kiev authorities could ride in the trucks,” Mr Lavrov said.

Ukrainian officials had insisted that the aid be unloaded at the border and transferred to Red Cross vehicles , but Mr Lavrov said Kiev had abandoned this demand.

“They raised the question of moving the load from all 287 trucks to lorries rented by the ICRC but, for obvious reasons, they ultimately dropped this idea because it would only complicate and make more costly this humanitarian effort.”

Mr Lavrov also said Kiev had given security guarantees for the convoy on territory it controls and he hoped for the same from the rebels on areas they hold.

There was no confirmation of this agreement from Ukraine or the Red Cross, however, leaving open the possibility for further dispute and potential problems when the convoy – believed to consist of military trucks and drivers – reaches the frontier.

“This cargo will be reloaded onto other transport vehicles (at the border) by the Red Cross,” Ukrainian presidential aide Valery Chaly said earlier yesterday.

“We will not allow any escort by the emergencies ministry of Russia or by the military. Everything will be under the control of the Ukrainian side.”

Laurent Corbaz, the ICRC’s head of operations for Europe, said his organisation needed “some clarification first regarding modalities, practical steps that have to be implemented prior to launching such an operation”.

“We seriously need security guarantees, for example, and direct contact with all the parties; this is not settled yet. We need to know precisely what is inside the convoy, the size of this convoy, and the various material that is going to be handed over.”

Russian officials said the convoy was carrying 2,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid, including 400 tonnes of cereal, 100 tonnes of sugar, 62 tonnes of baby food, 54 tonnes of medical equipment and medicine, 12,000 sleeping bags and 69 generators.

The aid is required particularly urgently in Luhansk, a city of some 400,000 people that has been without power and running water for over a week.

“The content of humanitarian aid must be exactly that, humanitarian aid, and obviously cannot be taken on face value,” said EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva.

She insisted that the aid be examined and approved by Ukraine and the ICRC and distributed by the Red Cross to ensure fairness.

Fear of cover-up

“Ukraine has the right to know what is entering their territory. What we expect to see is full respect for international humanitarian law and for the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence of the delivery of humanitarian aid,” she said.

Top US, German, French and Australian officials also urged Moscow to co-operate with Kiev and international organisations, highlighting fears of Russian intervention that have been stoked by a large military build-up near Ukraine’s border.

“We must be extremely careful because this could be a cover for the Russians to install themselves near Luhansk and Donetsk and present us with a fait accompli,” said French foreign minister Laurent Fabius.