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KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia — A large Russian aid convoy resumed its journey toward Ukraine today, taking a road leading directly toward a border crossing controlled by pro-Russian rebels in the Luhansk region.
The convoy of more than 200 vehicles had been parked at a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh since late Tuesday amid disagreement over how and where the aid could be delivered to Ukraine, where government troops are battling pro-Russia separatists.
Today the white trucks, some flying the red flag of Moscow city and accompanied by green military vehicles, traveled down a winding highway through sunflower fields and rolling green hills. They turned off that road near the city of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, driving west toward the Ukraine border crossing of Izvaryne, which is currently under rebel control.
By taking such a route, Russian appeared to be intent on not abiding by a tentative agreement to deliver aid to a government-controlled border checkpoint in the Kharkiv region, where it could more easily be inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross. Moscow has insisted it coordinated the dispatch of the goods, which it says range from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags, with the international Red Cross.
ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk stressed today that talks between the organization, Ukraine and Russia were continuing, but that she could not confirm where the Russian convoy was headed.
“The plans keep changing, the discussions are going ahead and we will not confirm for sure until we know an agreement has been reached,” Isyuk said in Geneva. “The practical details still have to be clarified between the two sides.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry says there are 262 vehicles in the convoy, including about 200 trucks carrying aid.
President Vladimir Putin, who was meeting with lawmakers in the Black Sea region of Crimea that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March, has not yet commented on the convoy but said that his country was doing “all we can to stop bloodshed in Ukraine as soon as possible.”
“We must consolidate and get mobilized, but not for wars or conflicts, but for hard work in the name of Russia and for Russia,” he added.
Officials in Ukraine say they fear the aid mission could be used as a pretext for establishing a permanent Russian presence in the region, and confusion over the arrangements has stoked fears of Russian intervention both in Kiev and the West.
Today, the Ukrainian government announced that it was dispatching its own convoy of humanitarian aid to the region. In a statement published on its website, the government said trucks would depart from the government-controlled cities of Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkiv for a town in the Luhansk region today. It gave no details about what the trucks contained.
Leaders in Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of providing arms and expertise to pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, who have been battling government forces since April. Moscow has denied those charges, but the breakdown in communication over humanitarian aid has further stoked fears of Russian intervention.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Moscow of possibly planning a “direct invasion of Ukrainian territory under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid.”
Russia’s state-controlled media played down the convoy’s move to travel south to Luhansk. Rossiya television said the route change was necessary because the Kiev government has refused to allow Russian trucks to enter through Kharkiv.
The Ukrainian presidential administration has said it will accept aid brought through government-controlled checkpoints in the Kharkiv region and vetted by the Red Cross.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, insisted Wednesday that the operation was proceeding in full cooperation with the Red Cross, but he did not comment on the route.
Attempts to ease the humanitarian crisis come as Ukrainian forces step up their efforts to dislodge the rebels from their last strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The U.N.‘s human rights office in Geneva said Wednesday that its “very conservative estimates” show the overall death toll has risen to at least 2,086 people as of Aug. 10, up from 1,129 on July 26.