Two of the most senior pro-Russian separatists battling Ukraine forces near the Russian border quit Thursday, as Ukrainian troops pummeled locations near the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Artillery shells struck the center of Donetsk for the first time since rebels launched their rebellion against Ukrainian rule in April. Western news reports say at least 25 people were killed in the Donetsk shelling, while Ukraine reported nine troops killed.
The departures of Russian nationals Igor Strelkov and Valery Bolotov also came as a huge Russian aid convoy remained parked on the Russian side of the border, with its destination unknown and its cargo manifest unclear.
According to Ukrainian media, the convoy of nearly 300 trucks on Thursday was heading towards Izvaryne, a border crossing controlled by pro-Russian separatists, but has stopped and is currently parked in Russia's Rostov region in an area some 40 kilometers away from the frontier. It is not clear how long the convoy will remain there.
Moscow insisted it coordinated the dispatch with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but on Wednesday representatives of the ICRC said they were still in the dark about the final destination of the convoy.
The Kyiv government, which accuses Russia of arming and otherwise supporting the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, has called the convoy a "Trojan horse" and repeatedly voiced suspicions that Moscow is using it as part of a plan for a full-scale incursion. Western governments have expressed similar fears.
Moscow on Wednesday called the accusations "absurd."
Russia's Foreign Ministry says it is continuing negotiations with the Ukrainian government and the ICRC to get the trucks cleared into Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government has dispatched some of its own trucks with supplies for people in eastern Ukraine affected by the conflict.
Three separate convoys left Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv Thurday heading toward Donetsk and Luhansk with 800 tons of food and sanitary products, Ukraine’s Emergencies Ministry said. Additioonal convoys will be organized in the coming days, it added.
Earlier this week, Ukraine officials said the convoy's contents could be allowed entry if they were inspected by the International Red Cross first. 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 said 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 past 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.
He addressed Russian ministers and lawmakers traveling with him in Yalta on Thursday, the second day of his visit.
Putin on Thursday also said he believed many European leaders were eager to end the standoff over sanctions with Russia, which he said was “damaging our cooperation.”
Putin made the remark in Crimea after meeting with a French businessman who said he was interested in developing an entertainment complex on the peninsula.
Putin added that, based on a recent conversation he had with his French counterpart Francois Hollande, he felt that this also reflected the French president's mood.
Separately, Slovakia's prime minister criticized the European Union sanctions against Russia over Ukraine on Thursday, saying they would only threaten economic growth in the 28-member bloc.
“Why should we jeopardize the EU economy that is beginning to grow?” Robert Fico told a news conference.
Ukraine to impose own sanctions
Also on Thursday, the Ukrainian parliament approved a law to impose sanctions on Russian companies and individuals supporting and financing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The government has already prepared a list of 172 citizens of Russia and other countries, and of 65 Russian companies, including gas export giant Gazprom, on whom they could impose sanctions “for financing terrorism.”
After Thursday's vote, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told parliament that Ukraine had taken a historic step.
“By approving the law on sanctions, we showed that the country is able to protect itself,” Yatsenyuk said. "The law should give a clear answer to any aggressor or terrorist who threatens our national security, our government and our citizens."
Finland's president says he plans to discuss Ukraine with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in southern Russia Friday.
The meeting, to be held at Putin’s residence in Sochi, would be the Russian president’s first encounter with a leader of a European Union country on Russian soil since the conclusion in February of the 2014 Winter Olympics he hosted in the same city.
Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, played down prospects for any breakthrough, but said his meeting with Putin would focus on finding ways to defuse tensions over Ukraine.
“I do not want to present myself as a great peace mediator,” Niinisto told a news conference. But he stressed a need for “open communication channels,” expressing hope that his initiative would bring a “small step forward.”
Quoting a Kremlin source, Reuters is reporting that the agenda for the Sochi meeting would focus on bilateral issues, primarily trade.
Finland is among EU countries hit hard by food import restrictions Moscow imposed last week in retaliation for EU sanctions.
Heavy shelling has been reported in rebel-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine Thursday.
The Donetsk city council reported that two people were killed, and two shopping centers and a residential building damaged, in shelling that, for the first time, hit near the city's center. It also reported a fire on the grounds of an oil storage facility.
It was not clear who fired the shells but separatist online news outlets said Ukrainian government forces hit targets inside Donetsk and have struck regions to the east and southwest of the city in previous days.
Separately, the Donetsk regional health department reported that 74 civilians had been killed and 116 wounded in fighting throughout the region over the past three days. The health authorities said 839 residents of the Donetsk region have been killed and 1,623 wounded since March 1.
Ukrainian troops have been slowly tightening the noose on rebels in Donetsk, a regional hub with a peace-time population of nearly a million.
Shelling has also been reported in Luhansk, another rebel stronghold.
Rebels in disarray?
Meanwhile, two senior rebel commanders have announced that they are leaving their posts, deepening the disarray among separatist forces.
The defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic Igor Strelkov, whom Kyiv accused of being a Russian intelligence officer, is reportedly moving to a less senior post.
Valery Bolotov, head of the self-proclaimed rebel government in Luhansk region, said he was injured and could no longer carry out his duties.
A week ago Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, also quit.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.