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Customs checks begin on Russian aid trucks

The first trucks of a Russian aid convoy have cleared through a customs checkpoint at the border with Ukraine. More than 260 trucks had spent days at the frontier awaiting clearance from Ukrainian officials.

Ukrainian border guards began checking the first trucks of the aid convoy on Thursday around 2:15 pm local time (11:15 UTC), after the cargo passed through a Russian checkpoint on the border with Ukraine.

"The processing of Russian humanitarian aid has begun," senior border service official Sergiy Astakhov told AFP.

The relief supplies had been held up at the border for almost a week, amid Ukrainian concerns the trucks could serve as a Trojan horse to transport weapons to pro-Russian separatists who have been fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine since April.

Moscow has repeatedly denied allegations it is providing the rebels with arms, and insists the trucks are carrying only supplies and nourishment for the conflict-hit region.

Humanitarian crisis

Living conditions in eastern Ukraine have deteriorated dramatically. The city of Luhansk has reportedly been cut off from water and electricity for almost three weeks.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had sent 35 staff to the border region to help expedite the passage of the trucks across the border to Luhansk.

"An ICRC team visited Luhansk [on Wednesday] to check the roads and establish contacts for the delivery of the convoy, having received security guarantees for the mission," ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson told Reuters in Geneva on Thursday.

Fighting flares

In recent weeks, Ukraine government forces have gained ground in the conflict with the separatists, closing in on the rebel-held bastions of

Donetsk and Luhansk.

Fighting intensified on Thursday in the town of Ilovaysk, to the east of Donetsk. Five Ukrainian troops and at least two civilians were killed in the past 24 hours, said Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko on Thursday.

Lysenko added that a SU-24M jet flying over the outskirts of Luhansk was shot down by rebels on Wednesday. Both pilots ejected safely, he said.

The intensified fighting comes ahead of a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Kyiv on Saturday. Next week he is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in what would be the first meeting between the two leaders since June.

Poroshenko's website said Thursday that he would use that meeting with Putin in Minsk to call for all rebel fighters to be withdrawn from Ukraine.

The fighting has displaced

more than 415,000 people and killed more than 2,000 since the conflict began, according to figures released this week by the United Nations.

nm/glb (AP, dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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