DONETSK, Ukraine/YALTA, Crimea: A massive Russian “humanitarian” convoy drew closer to Ukraine’s border Thursday despite skepticism over whether the aid trucks would be allowed across, and as deadly fighting rocked rebel-held strongholds.
The nearly 300 vehicles headed toward southeastern Ukraine, even as intense shelling there in the insurgent bastions of Donetsk and Lugansk – where the trucks appear headed – sharply increased the death toll from fighting.
Health authorities in Donetsk, the center of which was under heavy shelling by the army, said 74 people were killed in fighting over the past three days.
Government forces at the same time reported nine dead and 18 injured among its troops, following four months of fighting that have left over 2,000 dead and many residents without power, running water and with dwindling food supplies.
Meanwhile, Ukraine dispatched aid convoys of its own from three cities to a government-held eastern town as it tried to race Moscow to hand out much-needed aid to residents in the blighted region.
The Russian convoy, a 3-kilometer file of white-tarpaulin-covered lorries, reached the Rostov region in southwestern Russia Thursday, a spokesman for the Russian Emergencies Ministry in Moscow told AFP.
The convoy had earlier headed for government-controlled territory in the region of Kharkiv further west, with Kiev insisting only the aid and not the lorries would be allowed to cross the border.
But President Petro Poroshenko’s office Wednesday suggested the aid could travel more directly to the stricken east and be allowed into Ukraine under certain conditions.
Fears have mounted that the lorries rumbling toward the border could spark an escalation in a conflict that has already brought ties between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Ukraine and the West have warned that Moscow’s operation could be a “Trojan horse” bringing military help to pro-Russian insurgents, who have been losing ground to government troops in the east.
Moscow denies the allegations, insisting that the aid operation was coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and that no military escort accompanied the lorries.
As the convoy moved nearer to the Ukrainian border, Donetsk and Lugansk – the rebels’ two biggest strongholds – came under renewed fire on Thursday.
Heavy shelling smashed into the center of Donetsk, once a bustling city of 1 million. Health authorities said 74 were killed and 116 wounded over the past three days.
Shelling also killed at least 22 residents in Lugansk, an official from the regional administration told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“There was an artillery bombardment of the eastern areas of the city. A bus, shop and several apartment blocks were hit,” the official said.
Ukraine’s military said its positions were repeatedly fired upon as it made a new push to capture Lugansk.
More than 2,000 people have been killed the four-month conflict, the U.N. human rights agency said Wednesday, noting the death toll had doubled in just two weeks.
Some 285,000 people are also estimated to have fled their homes in the east.
Ukraine’s proposal Wednesday said Russian aid could be allowed into the country after it was inspected by Ukrainian border guards, customs officers and monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The International Red Cross raised questions about the contents of the trucks’ cargo, saying it did not know what was inside.
Russian media reported that the convoy, which left the Moscow region Tuesday, was carrying more than 1,800 tons of supplies including medical equipment, baby food, sleeping bags and electric generators.
President Vladimir Putin said on a visit to Crimea Thursday that Russia would stand up for itself but not at the cost of confrontation with the outside world, a conciliatory note after months of tough rhetoric over the crisis in Ukraine.
Putin was speaking to Russian ministers and members of parliament in Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russian this year.
But the tone of Putin’s comments was low-key and he avoided the kind of barbs that he has previously directed at Western countries during the crisis, which has dragged East-West relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.
“We must calmly, with dignity and effectively, build up our country, not fence it off from the outside world,” Putin said.
“We need to consolidate and mobilise but not for war or any kind of confrontation ... for hard work in the name of Russia.”
He also said Russia would do everything in its power to end the conflict in Ukraine as soon as possible and stop the bloodshed there.
Explaining his thoughts about Russia’s foreign policy doctrine, he said it should be peace-loving.
“All our partners in the world should understand that Russia, like any other large, powerful sovereign state, has various ways and means of ensuring its national interests, and these include armed forces,” he said.
“But this is not a panacea and we do not intend, like some people, to dash around the world with a razor blade and wave that blade around. But everyone should understand that we also have such things in our arsenal.”