A large Russian convoy carrying aid has left Moscow for Ukraine, ostensibly to work with the Red Cross. However, the relief organization says it has not yet approved the operation, raising fears about Russia’s motives.
Just hours after Russia sent 280 trucks carrying humanitarian aid toward its border with eastern Ukraine on Tuesday morning, a spokesperson from Ukraine's military said the convoy would be denied access because its mission had still not been confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had announced the international initiative, which was to be carried out in cooperation with the ICRC. Ukrainian President Poroshenko also confirmed that he had welcomed the assistance from Moscow.
Ukrainian officials reacted strongly to the news of the convoy's departure on Tuesday, pointing out that Russia's army was managing the convoy and that its contents had not been verified by the ICRC.
Poroshenko's deputy chief of staff, Anatoliy Chaly, later said that Kyiv would not allow the Russian trucks into the country at all, owing to fears of a potential covert military operation.
"We will not consider the possibility of any movement of the Russian column on the territory of Ukraine," Chaly said, adding that their contents would have to be unloaded and transported by ICRC vehicles.
"Any moves made not in agreement with Ukraine may be taken as military aggression," he added.
Convoy to arrive this week
The aid column is expected to complete its 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) journey from Moscow to eastern Ukraine within two to three days.
Russian state television showed workers hoisting bags of food and other humanitarian aid into the trucks before their departure. They are said to be carrying 2,000 tons of supplies.
According to the original plan, ICRC representatives were to meet the convoy at the border. Once inside Ukrainian territory, it was then to be escorted by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Fighting between separatists and Ukraine's government has left more than 1,100 people dead, according to the United Nations.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the embattled region. Those who have remained behind are believed to be without power, water and medical supplies.
France expresses 'grave concerns'
French President Francois Hollande also weighed in on the Russian convoy controversy on Tuesday, saying in a statement that he had "grave concerns" prompted by the "possibility of a unilateral Russian mission on Ukrainian soil."
Earlier in the day, his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told France Info Radio, that countries must remain vigilant.
"We must be extremely careful because this could be a cover for the Russians to install themselves near Luhansk and Donetsk and put us before a done deed," Fabius told France Info radio.
The leaders of the United States, Europe and Ukraine have repeatedly urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt any actions that could be perceived as an infringement on the country's sovereignty. However, the West has accused him of continuing to allow pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine access to supplies and military equipment. He also resisted calls to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from along the Russian-Ukrainian border.
kms/pfd, ipj (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)