KIEV: The number of people who have been killed in eastern Ukraine appears to have doubled in the last two weeks, the U.N. human rights office said Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the office, Cecile Pouilly, said the U.N.’s “very conservative estimates” show the death toll has risen to at least 2,086 people as of Aug. 10 from 1,129 on July 26.
The spike in violence came as Ukraine described Russia’s dispatch of an aid convoy heading toward its border as a cynical act designed to fan a pro-Russian rebellion.
Kiev declared that the convoy would not be allowed to pass; but a presidential spokesman later suggested a compromise might be found, bringing it under the control of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“First they send tanks, Grad missiles and bandits who fire on Ukrainians and then they send water and salt,” Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said. “The level of Russian cynicism knows no bounds.”
The comments reflected suspicions in Kiev and Western capitals that passage of the convoy onto Ukrainian soil could turn into a covert military action to help separatists in the Russian-speaking east now losing ground to government forces.
The convoy of heavy trucks rumbled out of Moscow region on Tuesday and traveled some 500 km to the southwestern Russian town of Voronezh. There it stopped at an air base behind high fences, according to a Reuters reporter.
Several people who entered the air base and spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said dozens of trucks were still parked at the airbase. It was not clear whether the Voronezh convoy was the only one traveling toward Ukraine.
“The journey isn’t short, of course,” a lorry driver interviewed on Russian Rossiya-24 television said. “How can I put it? It’s pretty difficult. But how could we not help our Slavic brothers? We are all for it.”
An ICRC spokeswoman in Geneva said Russia had given a “general list” of goods on its convoy to Kiev and the ICRC, but the aid agency needed a detailed inventory.
“A number of important issues still need to be clarified between the two sides, including border crossing procedures, customs clearance and other issues,” Anastasia Isyuk said.
The list of contents on the 260-truck convoy provided by Moscow included food, water bottles and generators, she said.
The last few weeks has seen significant government successes against rebels who have abandoned a string of towns under heavy fire. Kiev says rebel leaders, some of whom are Russians and who seek union with Russia, are receiving arms from Moscow, something the Kremlin denies.
Russian state TV presented a picture of fierce battles around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, accusing the Ukrainian military of indiscriminate shelling or rocketing of civilian buildings. Residents interviewed said they were being bombed every day and hiding in cellars.
Ukraine fears the convoy could become the focus of tension and conflict once on its soil and provide a pretext for a Russian armed incursion. At the same time, it does not want to seem to be blocking aid and providing a moral basis for Kremlin action.
A presidential spokesman said the Ukrainians, at a meeting late Tuesday night, had agreed to accept the aid for Luhansk region in a bid to prevent “a full-scale invasion” by Russia.
One option he said was for the aid to come into Ukraine at a point further along the border closer to Luhansk after checks by Ukrainian border guards, customs and officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The aid could then be distributed under the supervision of the Red Cross, said the spokesman, Svyatoslav Tseholko.