Trucks roll home - as Putin ready to meet Ukrainians
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday the stand-off over Ukraine could be solved - but only if control was tightened over the Ukraine-Russia border across which, the West alleges, Russia has been funnelling arms to help a separatist rebellion.
Meanwhile hundreds of trucks from a bitterly disputed Russian aid convoy to rebel-held eastern Ukraine rolled back across the border into Russia but questions about alleged Russian artillery in Ukraine still remained.
On Friday NATO said it had mounting evidence that Russian troops are operating inside Ukraine and launching artillery attacks at Ukrainian troops from Ukrainian soil as well as from Russia. Moscow's ambassador to the UN vehemently rejected that accusation.
Paul Picard, head of the mission for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told journalists in the Russian town of Donetsk that all the vehicles that had crossed into Ukraine had returned to Russia by mid-afternoon.
Reporters on the Ukrainian side of the border were able to look inside about 40 of the white-tarpaulined tractor-trailers and confirm they were empty. Russia said the trucks carried only food, water, generators and sleeping bags to the hard-hit rebel stronghold of Luhansk.
Russia had unilaterally sent the trucks into Ukraine through a rebel-held border point on Friday, saying it had lost patience with Ukraine's delaying tactics. Ukraine promptly called the act an invasion.
Ukraine and others - including the EU, the US and NATO - denounced Russia's move as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. Kiev and Western countries also suggested the convoy could be used to smuggle supplies and reinforcements to separatists.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has advocated a measured EU response to Russia's aggressive policies in Ukraine, met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev yesterday and urged a political solution to the crisis.
Poroshenko will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk on Tuesday in their first encounter since June. Merkel said she was looking forward to the outcome of those talks and expressed "hope that at least a step forward will be reached there".
Poroshenko said Ukraine is anxious to bring peace as soon as possible and solve the conflict by talks, but "not at the expense of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine."
It remained unclear Saturday what the Russian convoy had actually delivered, since it only arrived late Friday afternoon. Unloading hundreds of trucks in just a few hours in a war-battered region represents a sizeable task. Some journalists following the convoy to Luhansk said rattling sounds from some of the trucks indicated they were not fully loaded.
The UN says more than 2,000 people have been killed and 340,000 forced to flee their homes during fighting.