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Russian convoy rolls on towards Ukraine as fighting intensifies

A massive Russian “humanitarian” convoy closed in on Ukraine’s border Thursday despite doubts over whether the trucks would be allowed across, and as deadly fighting rocked rebel-held strongholds.

The nearly 300 vehicles headed towards southeastern Ukraine, even as intense shelling there in the insurgent bastions of Donetsk and Lugansk — where the trucks appear headed — sharply increased the death toll from fighting.

Health authorities in Donetsk, the centre of which was under heavy shelling by the army, said 74 people were killed in fighting over the past three days.

Government forces at the same time reported nine dead and 18 injured among its troops, following four months of fighting that have left over 2,000 dead and many residents without power, running water and with dwindling food supplies.

Meanwhile, Ukraine dispatched aid convoys of its own from three cities to a government-held eastern town as it tried to race Moscow to hand out much-needed aid to residents in the blighted region.

The Russian convoy, a three-kilometre (two-mile) file of white-tarpaulin-covered lorries, reached the Rostov region in southwestern Russia Thursday, a spokesman for the Russian emergencies ministry in Moscow told AFP.

It was not immediately clear when the trucks would arrive at the border or whether Ukrainian officials would allow them to pass.

The convoy had earlier headed for government-controlled territory in the region of Kharkiv further west, with Kiev insisting only the aid and not the lorries would be allowed to cross the border.

On Wednesday however, President Petro Poroshenko’s office suggested the aid could travel more directly to the stricken east and be allowed into Ukraine under certain conditions.

Fears have mounted that the lorries rumbling toward the border could spark an escalation in a conflict that has already brought ties between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Ukraine and the West have warned that Moscow’s operation could be a “Trojan horse” bringing military help to pro-Russian insurgents, who have been losing ground to government troops in the east.

Moscow denies the allegations, insisting the aid operation was coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and that no military escort accompanied the lorries.

– Climbing death toll –

As the convoy moved nearer to the Ukrainian border, Donetsk and Lugansk — the rebels’ two biggest strongholds — came under renewed fire on Thursday.

Heavy shelling smashed into the centre of Donetsk, once a bustling city of one million. Health authorities said 74 were killed and 116 wounded over the past three days.

Shelling also killed at least 22 residents in Lugansk, an official from the regional administration told AFP on condition of anonymity. “There was an artillery bombardment of the eastern areas of the city. A bus, shop and several apartment blocks were hit,” the official said.

The rebel chief in the besieged city, Valery Bolotov, told Russian television he was “temporarily leaving my post” because of wounds he also sustained. His “defence minister”, Igor Plotnitski, was replacing him, he said.

Ukraine’s military said its positions were repeatedly fired upon as it made a new push to capture Lugansk.

More than 2,000 people have been killed the four-month conflict, the UN human rights agency said Wednesday, noting the death toll had doubled in just two weeks.

Some 285,000 people are also estimated to have fled their homes in the east.

– International wariness –

As uncertainty remained about the outcome of Russia’s “humanitarian” push, Poroshenko held phone talks with UN chief Ban Ki-Moon and US Vice-President Joe Biden on the aid situation, his office said.

Ukraine’s proposal on Wednesday said Russian aid could be allowed into the country after it was inspected by Ukrainian border guards, customs officers and monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The OSCE could not confirm its involvement on Thursday, telling AFP only that “we are on stand-by to assist the ICRC-led operation,” and adding that details were “under discussion”.

The International Red Cross also raised questions about the contents of the trucks’ cargo, saying it did not know what was inside.

Russian media reported that the convoy, which left the Moscow region on Tuesday, was carrying more than 1,800 tonnes of supplies including medical equipment, baby food, sleeping bags and electric generators.

Separate convoys meanwhile departed the Ukrainian cities of Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv Thursday “carrying assistance” to the Lugansk region, Ukraine’s cabinet said in a statement.

This followed a government pledge Wednesday of roughly $750,000 (560,000 euros) in urgent assistance for the civilians living in insurgent-held territory.

Russia has been hit by tough Western economic sanctions over its suspected role — which Moscow denies — in fomenting and supporting the insurgency in Ukraine.

Russia has reacted modestly, by barring most EU food imports, but has so far stopped short of escalating retaliation into a damaging full-on trade war.

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said that while Russia should not let the West treat it “with disdain,” it should also not “fence itself off from the outside world”.