KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia - Hundreds of trucks in a Russian aid convoy waited Saturday near the Ukrainian border as complicated procedures dragged on for allowing them into eastern Ukraine to help civilians suffering amid fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatists.
The main holdup was a lack of security guarantees from all sides in the conflict, said the International Committee of the Red Cross, which would have responsibility for distributing the aid.
Ukrainian officials are concerned that the mission, including around 200 trucks, could be a guise for Russia to send in equipment for the rebels, whom Kyiv and Western countries claim are backed by Moscow. But Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement under which the trucks could enter with Red Cross accompaniment if Ukrainian border guards and customs agents approve the cargo.
Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC delegation for Russia, said agreement on how the cargo would be inspected and cleared was reached on Saturday during several hours of talks between Russian and Ukrainian customs and border service officials.
"The challenge is we absolutely need security guarantees from all parties concerned before we can start moving," Cuttat told reporters, adding that it was unclear how long this could take. He said they were also waiting for a reply from the Ukrainian government to a formal request for the cargo to be processed.
The Ukrainian officials met with their Russian counterparts in the Russian border town of Donetsk, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of the Ukrainian city with the same name. Cuttat said the cargo inspection would take place there. The trucks have been parked since Thursday in the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, 28 kilometres (17 miles) from the border.
According to the White House, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden spoke with Poroshenko on Saturday, hearing that safe passage had not been secured from the separatists for the delivery of Russian aid. The two agreed that Russia's continued provision of advanced weapons to the separatists was inconsistent with any desire to improve the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, it said.
Fighting continued in eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been steadily taking back rebel-held territory. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, told reporters in Kyiv that three servicemen had been killed in the past day.
Lysenko reiterated the claim made a day earlier by President Petro Poroshenko that Ukrainian forces had destroyed most of a column of Russian military vehicles that had entered eastern Ukraine on Thursday evening.
Russia sharply denied that any such incursion had taken place and the White House said it was looking into what it called unconfirmed reports that Russian military vehicles were destroyed. Nonetheless, the reports spooked global markets and overshadowed optimism about the aid convoy.
Fighting has escalated since the insurgency arose in April and conditions for countless civilians are deteriorating.
The city of Luhansk is encircled by Ukrainian forces and is reportedly suffering from severe electrical outages and shortages of food and medicine.
Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, is also suffering through fighting including frequent shelling. Four people were killed in shelling that occurred Saturday afternoon, the mayor's office said in a statement.
Lysenko said Ukrainian forces are not using artillery or air strikes against either Luhansk or Donetsk. Ukrainians have blamed rebels for the shelling, while the insurgents say Ukrainians are firing on civilian targets.
While the Russian aid convoy remained stalled near the border, Ukraine has mounted a smaller but substantial aid mission to parts of the east recently freed from rebel control.
Trucks sent from the eastern city of Kharkiv were unloaded Friday at warehouses in the town of Starobilsk, where the goods were to be sorted and transported further by the Red Cross. Starobilsk is 100 kilometres (60 miles) 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.
The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany are expected to meet Sunday in Berlin to discuss the crisis.
Poroshenko met Saturday with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin a day earlier. Finland has close trade ties with Russia and Putin's recent move to ban food imports from the European Union could hit its economy severely. But as a Western country that is not a NATO member, Finland could also carry weight as an intermediary in the crisis.
"We have had open discussions about the convoy," Niinisto said after the meeting, but didn't elaborate.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has claimed nearly 2,100 lives, according to the United Nations, with half of those in the last few weeks as the Ukrainian troops regained more and more rebel-held territory. The unrest began in April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Heintz reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Lynn Berry in Moscow and Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki contributed to the report.
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