Ukraine-bound Russian convoy stuck amid bickering

A truck moves out from the military base not far from Voronezh, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. This truck is one from a convoy of white trucks with humanitarian aid still parked at the military base near city of Voronezh, about 200 kilometers from Ukrainian border. Russia on Tuesday dispatched some hundreds of trucks, although only a small proportion were counted in this convoy, covered in white tarps and sprinkled with holy water on a mission to deliver aid to a rebel-held zone in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

VORONEZH, Russia (AP) - Hundreds of Russian trucks carrying aid intended for rebel-held eastern Ukraine remained parked Wednesday in the southern city of Voronezh, their fate shrouded in mystery as Ukraine accused Moscow of plotting to use them as a cover for invasion.

Fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists increased as the U.N.'s human rights office released figures showing the number of people killed in eastern Ukraine appears to have doubled in the last two weeks to more than 2,000.

Other than a few local supply runs, the roughly 260 vehicles in the convoy lay idle at a military base in the southern city of Voronezh well into the afternoon, one day after making the 400-mile (650-kilometer) drive from outside Moscow.

Ukraine and Russia tentatively agreed Tuesday that the aid would be delivered to a government-controlled crossing in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, which hasn't been hit by the months of fighting that have wracked neighboring regions. The cargo would then have to be inspected by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But accord has soured into acrimony, with the spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accusing Moscow on Wednesday of possibly planning a "direct invasion of Ukrainian territory under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid."

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said "nobody knows" where the convoy is going but he had information it won't go through Kharkiv.

If the convoy goes further south across a border region under the control of the pro-Russian separatists the government has been battling for four months, that would certainly not involve the Red Cross and will be viewed with profound hostility by the Ukrainian government.

Lysenko said any deliveries of aid "that don't have the mandate of the Red Cross ... are taken as aggressive forces and the response will be adequate to that."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, insisted the aid convoy was on the move inside Russia, but declined to comment on the route. He said the operation was proceeding in full cooperation with the Red Cross.

But Red Cross officials in Ukraine said they have been left in the dark about the whereabouts of the Russian aid.

"The final route is not known. Even at the moment I am trying to find out where the convoy is," said Andre Loersch, a spokesman for the ICRC mission in Ukraine.

Amid the tensions, Putin traveled to Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in March, where he chaired a session of his Security Council. A meeting with Putin's entire Cabinet and most Russian lawmakers is scheduled for Thursday.

Russia says the 1,800 metric tons of aid includes goods ranging from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags. It's intended for civilians in the Luhansk region, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting. The regional capital of Luhansk has had no electricity for 11 days and only the most essential goods are available, city authorities say.

A spokeswoman for the U.N.'s human rights office, Cecile Pouilly, said in a statement Wednesday that the U.N.'s "very conservative estimates" show the overall death toll in eastern Ukraine has risen to at least 2,086 people as of Aug. 10 from 1,129 on July 26.

Pouilly said at least 4,953 others have been wounded in the fighting since mid-April.

Intense shelling hit main rebel-held city of Donetsk overnight and into Wednesday, killing at least three people, the city said.

In addition, at least 12 militiamen fighting alongside government troops were killed in an ambush outside the city, a spokesman for their radical nationalist movement said Wednesday.

Artem Skoropatsky said the Right Sector volunteer fighters were shot dead while traveling on a bus and many others on the bus were wounded and taken captive. He did not know how many.

"There is a suspicion that the wounded will be treated very harshly and could be shot," he said.

Right Sector played a marginal if highly visible role in the protests that culminated in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in February. Its far-right nationalist affiliations have made it a target of lurid reporting in Russia state media, which has sought to cast the post-Yanukovych government as extremists.

In Kiev, Lysenko said Wednesday that 11 servicemen were killed in the previous day's fighting, but he could not immediately say whether that figure included the Right Sector militiamen.

Government troops have laid siege to Donetsk and nearby rebel holdings in their push to quash the pro-Russian insurgency. They have largely refrained from street-to-street fighting, favoring often inaccurate rocket fire.

Residents said the intermittent artillery barrage lasted around two hours. City authorities said 10 residential buildings and the wing of a hospital were struck.

Associated Press reporters saw two bodies lying in a street Wednesday morning in the city's southwestern Petrovsky district.

The shelling has damaged power plants and gas pipelines, leaving large parts of the city without electricity or gas.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in April, a month after Putin annexed Crimea.


Grits reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. John Heilprin in Geneva, Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk , Peter Leonard in Kiev, and Natalya Vasilyeva in Sevastopol, Crimea, contributed to this report.