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Ukraine accuses Russia of 'invasion' as aid trucks move in

Ukraine accused Moscow of invading after Russia unilaterally sent the first part of its mammoth aid convoy into eastern Ukraine on Friday (Aug 22), warning against any attacks on the trucks

 IZVARYNE: Kiev accused Moscow of invading as Russia unilaterally drove a mammoth aid convoy across war-torn east Ukraine on Friday (Aug 22) and warned against any attacks on the trucks. The European Union said it "deplored" Russia's decision to order in the convoy without consent and called on Moscow to withdraw the trucks.

Scores of white lorries snaked across rebel-held territory after Moscow abruptly called time a week of haggling with Kiev, despite Red Cross officials refusing to provide an escort because of security concerns. "This is a direct invasion," the head of Ukraine's security service, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, was quoted by news agencies as saying. But he said Ukraine will not order air strikes on the trucks.

Ukraine's foreign ministry however claimed that separatist fighters were shelling the convoy's possible route to the rebel bastion of Lugansk some 63 kilometres (40 miles) away and could be planning a "provocation".

Ukraine and Russia both said the other side was responsible for the convoy's security, and Russia's foreign ministry warned "against any attempts to disrupt a totally humanitarian mission". "We are doing everything in our power for this not to result in more serious consequences," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.

Russia has been pressing Ukraine to let its cargo reach residents in the stricken region of eastern Ukraine but Kiev and the West fear the trucks could be used to bolster a flagging pro-Russian insurrection. Russia insists it just wants to get urgently needed assistance to besieged residents who have been without water and electricity for weeks.

Moscow said it was ready to have Red Cross officials accompany the convoy, but the organisation said it had backed out of the operation because of fierce fighting raging in the area where the trucks are heading. "We are not part of the convoy in any way," Victoria Zotikova, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Moscow, told AFP, adding that they have not received "sufficient security guarantees".

BORDER OFFICIALS "BLOCKED"

Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe at the border said over 130 trucks had crossed by the afternoon. Nearly 300 trucks driven by men in identical beige clothes had been waiting for the green light to cross since arriving at the border over a week ago.

Ukraine's border service said its officials were "blocked" at the Russian checkpoint as the convoy started rolling across the border and had not checked many of the trucks. An AFP photographer said that the first vehicles to cross were met by an escort of rebels driving in minivans. The route of the trucks to Lugansk was still unclear, and separatist media indicated that the column had to divert because of the fighting.

After four months of fighting that has cost some 2,200 lives, Ukrainian forces have been steadily gaining ground with the separatists now surrounded in several key strongholds and street battles erupting in populated areas. Analysts say Kiev and Moscow are both under pressure to strengthen their positions ahead of a meeting between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin next Tuesday in Minsk alongside top EU officials.

On Thursday, Poroshenko said his delegation was going to Minsk to "talk peace" but that he would stick to demands that pro-Russian fighters withdraw from east Ukraine. The entry of the Russian convoy also exacerbates tensions ahead of a visit to Kiev Saturday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a show of support for Ukraine's pro-Western leaders.

Kiev has accused Moscow of fuelling the insurgency which erupted after Russia annexed Crimea in March, setting off the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

"CONSIDERABLE" REBEL LOSSES

Kiev's security forces said Friday the military has made further gains, with the press service for the operation in the east reporting "considerable enemy losses". But Kiev also said that pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian air force helicopter on Wednesday near Lugansk, killing the two-member crew.

Meanwhile, in the southwestern outskirts of the largest rebel-held city of Donetsk in Ukraine's industrial heartland, a separatist checkpoint was shelled on Friday by government forces nearby. "We hid in a cellar," said Valentina, who was woken up by the blasts at 4:30 am. "It was really scary. Whoever did it, God will be their judge."

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