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Sunday 21 September 2014

Russia denies vehicles destroyed

Published 15/08/2014 | 09:41

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Ukrainian soldiers rest in their self-propelled guns as an army column of military vehicles prepares to roll to a front line in the Donetsk region (AP)

Russian military vehicles crossed into Ukraine during the night, Nato said today, and the Ukrainian president declared that most of them were quickly destroyed by his troops.

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The reported Russian incursion, which Moscow strongly denied, came amid a week of drama over a Russian humanitarian aid mission for people in eastern Ukraine caught in the crossfire of fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists.

A statement on President Petro Poroshenko's website said he and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke by telephone today about reports from Western journalists that Russian armoured personnel carriers were seen crossing into Ukraine near the point where more than 200 vehicles in the Russian aid convoy were parked.

"The president said that the given information was trustworthy and confirmed because the majority of the vehicles were destroyed by Ukrainian artillery at night," Mr Poroshenko said in a statement. He gave no proof for his comments.

In Moscow, a spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry denied the reports that Ukraine had destroyed Russian military vehicles. Russian news wires quoted General Major Igor Konashenkov as saying that no Russian military convoy had crossed the border as Ukraine claimed. Earlier, Russia said Russian forces were patrolling the border region.

Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, confirmed that the alliance had observed a Russian "incursion" into Ukraine.

"What we have seen last night is the continuation of what we have seen for some time," he said during a visit to Copenhagen.

Britain said it summoned Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko in to clarify the reports.

Markets sold off heavily today, spooked by thought of Ukrainian troops engaging with Russia forces inside Ukraine. Germany's DAX, which had been trading more than 1% higher, ended the day 1.4% lower. The benchmark price of oil was up more than a dollar to 96.70 US dollars per barrel.

"Traders will be anxiously scanning their newsfeeds for any sign of a Russian response over the coming hours," said Chris Beauchamp, market analyst at IG.

Breaking an earlier deal, Russia this week sent the convoy of roughly 200 aid trucks toward a border crossing under the control of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, raising the prospect that it could enter without being inspected by Ukraine or the Red Cross. Kiev had agreed to admit the trucks, but only through a region untouched by separatist unrest.

After days of controversy, Russia nominally consented to let Ukrainian officials inspect the convoy while it was still on Russian soil and agreed that the Red Cross would distribute the goods in Ukraine's region of Luhansk.

Laurent Corbaz, the International Committee of the Red Cross's director of operations in Europe, described a tentative plan in which the trucks would enter Ukraine with a single Russian driver each - as opposed to the current crew of several people - accompanied by a Red Cross worker. In line with Red Cross policy, there would be no military escort, he said.

However, some Russian military vehicles were seen near the aid convoy today carrying a Russian acronym standing for "peacekeeping forces" - a signal that Moscow was considering a possible military escort.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has claimed nearly 2,100 lives, half of those in the last few weeks. It began in April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

The city of Luhansk has suffered extensively from an intense military barrage over the last few weeks. The city remains cut off from power and water supplies, and its mobile and landline telephone systems barely function, local authorities said today. Little food is available but bread is still being made using portable generators.

Ukraine, meanwhile, proceeded with its own aid mission to the Luhansk area. Trucks sent from the eastern city of Kharkiv were unloaded today at warehouses in the town of Starobilsk, where the goods were to be sorted and transported further by the Red Cross. Starobilsk is 60 miles (100km) north of Luhansk.

Other Ukrainian aid was taken to the town of Lysychansk, which was retaken by Ukrainian forces late last month but has seen sporadic clashes until earlier this week.

Dozens of houses in Lysychansk showed signs of damage - some had windows blown out, while others had been blasted or burned to the ground. An Associated Press reporter saw small children playing in the rubble of one destroyed house.

As Ukrainian emergency workers discussed how to distribute the aid, clusters of older women and small children began appearing on the town's streets. Residents said the aid was the first they had seen since fighting had ended.

Press Association

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