A Russian aid convoy moving toward rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine stalled Wednesday in Russian territory, still some 300 kilometers away from Ukraine’s border, as controversy swirled about its contents and its final destination.
Television footage showed the huge caravan parked outside the southwestern city of Voronezh, as Russian officials and their Ukrainian counterparts traded accusations and threats about the shipment.
Ukraine officials have issued conflicting statements about whether the convoy will be permitted to enter Ukrainian territory, where Ukraine troops are battling pro-Russian separatists for control of the border region.
Watch related video report from VOA's Zlatica Hoke:
After reports of a deal allowing passage for the convoy, Ukraine's interior minister later called the convoy a "provocation by the cynical aggressor," and said it would not be allowed in.
Adding to the confusion, there has been no definitive statement from Moscow about the convoy's destination.
The Kyiv government, which accuses Russia of arming and otherwise supporting the rebellion, has repeatedly voiced suspicions that Moscow is using the convoy as a pretext for a full-scale invasion. Moscow on Wednesday called the accusation "absurd."
Height of cynicism
Ukraine’s prime minister said on Wednesday that Russia could not possibly get any more cynical if at first it brings into Ukraine “tanks, ‘Grads’ (missile systems), terrorists and bandits who kill Ukrainians, and then [offers] water and salt.”
“It would be better if the Russians sent these trucks in empty and picked up their bandits – then no humanitarian aid would be needed,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting.
Earlier this week, Ukraine officials said the Russian goods could be allowed entry if they were first inspected by the International Red Cross. Kyiv also has said the convoy could transfer its cargo at the border to trucks leased by the relief agency.
However, the Red Cross said Wednesday it was still awaiting a detailed inventory of the shipment before it will take custody of the goods.
International relief officials say much of eastern Ukraine, including the hub cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, lack medical supplies, water and electricity, as Ukrainian government forces press their offensive aimed at ending the rebellion by pro-Russian separatists.
The United Nations human rights office said Wednesday that the death toll from the fighting in eastern Ukraine, which began in mid-April, appears to have doubled in the last two weeks, climbing to nearly 2,100 fatalities as of August 10.
Separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived Wednesday in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia seized and annexed from Ukraine in March.