Western monitors say the Russian aid convoy that crossed into Ukraine Friday has gone back to Russia, easing international tensions as German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Ukraine’s capital voicing renewed hopes for peace.
More than 200 white trucks left Ukraine Saturday, after making a stop in the city of Luhansk, which is occupied by pro-Russian separatists.
The unauthorized Russian convoy rankled officials in Ukraine, who said they were only able to inspect a few of the trucks before their crossing, and insisted that any Russian-donated aid be distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In another development Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met in Kyiv with President Petro Poroshenko, and pledged about $660 million in German aid to help rebuild cities in eastern Ukraine battered by months of fighting.
Merkel said her visit, just three days ahead of a meeting between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, comes at “a difficult but decisive time” for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. She also warned that Moscow could face further economic sanctions if its support for the rebellion continues.
Ukraine’s territorial integrity is essential, Merkel said, so a critical prerequisite for a cease-fire would be to seal off the border with Russia to prevent weapons and fighters flowing into eastern Ukraine.
“We need a peaceful situation but there’s no use if there’s an open border with Russia over which arms are coming,” she said.
As the high-level diplomacy unfolded in Kyiv, at least six civilians were reported killed by artillery fire in the key rebel stronghold city of Donetsk, as Ukraine’s forces press their fight against rebels near the Russian border.
In a related development, the U.S. State Department voiced shock Saturday over reports that a top Lithuanian diplomat was abducted and murdered by rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.
Spokeswoman Marie Harf also extended condolences to the diplomat’s family and said U.S. authorities were still “seeking information on the circumstances of this tragedy.”
Lithuanian authorities reported Friday that Honorary Consul Mykola Zelenec was kidnapped and killed, but did not immediately provide details.
International outcry about convoy
The entry of Russia’s convoy into Ukraine, following days of waiting as delivery details were negotiated with Kyiv, raised an outcry from Ukraine, the United States, NATO, and the European Union.
The White House called the crossing a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and demanded Russia remove the convoy or face consequences.
In acknowledging the incursion, the Russian Foreign Ministry referred to “endless delays hampering the initial deliveries” and said those delays had become “intolerable.” It also described the aid as “urgently needed by women, children and the elderly.”
In the city of Kramatorsk, Ukraine, a spokesman for Ukraine’s so-called Anti-Terror Operations, Olekseyi Dmitrachkovskiy, accused Russia of using the convoy to bring more supplies to rebels and to cover the tracks of their alleged involvement in the conflict.
“One of their missions was to take away dead Russian fighters,” he said, adding that they also are “stealing machine components and parts produced only in Ukraine.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitored the conflict in Ukraine, said observers counted 227 trucks in the convoy returning across the Donetsk Border Crossing Point back into Russia Friday and Saturday.
The Red Cross said the manner in which humanitarian supplies were brought to Luhansk “has complicated” the aid mission in the city.
Thousands of people are said to be lacking water, food and medicine in Luhansk, which has been the site of some of the heaviest fighting between Ukrainian and separatist forces.