MOSCOW – A convoy of 280 Russian trucks reportedly packed with aid headed for eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, but Ukraine said it would deny the mission entry because it has not been certified by the Red Cross and could be a covert military operation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had no information on what the trucks were carrying or where they were going. That has raised fears in Ukraine and the West, where leaders have voiced concerns that Russia could use the initiative as a pretext for sending troops into separatist-held territory.
Russian television and news agencies reported that 2,000 tons of aid was en route to Ukraine, where fighting between pro-Russian separatists and government forces has claimed more than 1,300 lives since April, according to a U.N. report.
Pro-Kremlin television channel NTV showed hundreds of white trucks gathered at a depot outside Moscow, and said they were carrying everything from baby food to sleeping bags. The report also showed a Russian Orthodox priest sprinkling holy water on the trucks, some of which bore a red cross, before their departure.
But Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said the convoy will not be allowed across the border.
“This convoy is not a certified convoy. It is not certified by the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Lysenko said.
He also showed a covertly filmed video appearing to show vehicles similar to the white-canopied trucks dispatched from Moscow on Tuesday parked at a military base in Russia.
One frame displayed by Lysenko shows uniformed troops lined up in front of one of the trucks.
Andre Loersch, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross mission in Ukraine, said that while the organization had reached a general agreement about delivery of humanitarian aid to the region, he had “no information about the content” of the trucks and did not know where they were headed.
“At this stage we have no agreement on this, and it looks like the initiative of the Russian Federation,” he said.
The deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, Valeriy Chaly, said Kiev had agreed to an arrangement whereby aid could be transferred across the border and reloaded onto trucks approved by the Red Cross.
But the Ukrainian government has insisted that aid must cross at a government-held border crossing. At least 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the border is currently in rebel hands.
Chaly suggested a suitable transfer point could be between Russia’s Belgorod region and Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, which has been spared the major unrest seen further south.
Chaly said that any attempt to take humanitarian goods into Ukraine without proper authorization would be viewed as an attack on the country.
French President Francois Hollande took up the issue directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying “he emphasized the strong fears evoked by a unilateral Russian mission in Ukrainian territory.”
Hollande told Putin Tuesday morning that any mission must be multilateral and have the agreement of the Red Cross and Ukraine, according to a statement in Paris.
Alexander Drobyshevsky, a spokesman for Russia’s emergency ministry that is conducting the mission, told the AP that his organization had “not yet defined” where the trucks would cross the border. He said it could take several days for them to reach Ukraine.
Some of the heaviest impact on civilians from fighting has been seen in Luhansk — the rebel-held capital of the Luhansk province that had a prewar population of 420,000. In their latest status update Monday, city authorities said the 250,000 residents remaining had had no electricity or water supplies for nine days. Much of the border with Luhansk province is under separatist control.
Kiev and the West have repeatedly opposed any Russian humanitarian aid mission to eastern Ukraine, fearing that such a move could preface an intervention by Moscow. Throughout the conflict, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of aiding the rebels with arms and expertise, a charge that the Kremlin has denied.