Russia, Ukraine agree to start inspecting Russian aid convoy

A Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine drives along a road from Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the direction of the border with Ukraine, Rostov Region, Aug 17, 2014. Russian and Ukrainian border guards and custom officials have
A Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine drives along a road from Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the direction of the border with Ukraine, Rostov Region, Aug 17, 2014. Russian and Ukrainian border guards and custom officials have agreed to proceed with the inspection of a first group of trucks from Russia's humanitarian convoy for Ukraine, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Sunday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russian and Ukrainian border guards and custom officials have agreed to proceed with the inspection of a first group of trucks from Russia's humanitarian convoy for Ukraine, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Sunday.

The convoy is due to travel from Russia into Ukraine under the aegis of the ICRC.

ICRC also said it was still waiting to receive security guarantees from the fighting parties in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east before it goes ahead with the convoy.

Russia and Ukraine have been at loggerheads for days over a convoy of 280 Russian trucks carrying water, food and medicine, which remained about 20km from the Ukrainian border, unmoved since Friday.

Russia says it is a purely humanitarian mission in support of civilians in areas hit by a four-month old conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, but Ukraine is concerned it could serve as a 'Trojan horse' to infiltrate military supplies or create a pretext for armed intervention.

Overnight into Sunday, the separatists shot down a Ukrainian warplane in eastern Ukraine while at least 10 civilians were killed in fighting involving artillery and mortar in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, local authorities said.

The renewed fighting, which followed a claim by rebels that they were receiving fresh stocks of heavy military equipment from Russia and 1,200 fighters, cast a shadow over a high-level international meeting in Berlin involving Russia and Ukraine.

The four-month conflict has reached a critical phase, with Kiev and Western governments watching nervously to see if Russia will intervene in support of the increasingly besieged rebels - something denied by Moscow.

A Ukrainian military spokesman said the rebels had hit a MiG-29 fighter jet over the Luhansk region, one of two regions where entrenched separatists are fighting a rear-guard action to hold off government forces advancing on their positions.

The pilot ejected and was located and recovered after a search, the spokesman, Mr Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky, told Reuters.

Donetsk, the region's biggest city where rebels are also still dug in despite an encroaching government offensive, rocked to the crash and boom of heavy weapons in the south throughout the night.

At least 10 civilians have been killed, local authorities said.

The Ukrainian National Guard said its forces had seized a rebel field commander from Luhansk region as well as 13 others suspected of "terrorist activity". "The terrorists are putting on ordinary clothes, taking only their passport with them and are trying to pass themselves off as ordinary peaceful citizens on public transport to try to get through the Ukrainian checkpoints," it said. "Among those seized is a field commander of the Luhansk terrorist group."

On Saturday, Mr Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said rebels were in the process of receiving some 150 armoured vehicles, including 30 tanks, and 1,200 trained fighters with which they planned to launch a major counter-offensive against government forces.

"They are joining at the most crucial moment," he said in a video recorded on Friday. He did not specify where the vehicles would come from.

The renewed fighting and rebel claims of reinforcements from Russia was certain to be broached at a meeting scheduled in Berlin later on Sunday of Ukrainian, Russian, German and French foreign ministers.

France said the meeting could be a first step towards a peace summit.

Moscow has come under heavy Western sanctions over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and accusations it is supporting the separatists with fighters, arms and funds. Russia denies those charges.

In a sign of concern at the latest rebel comments, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed in a phone call on Saturday that deliveries of weapons to separatists in Ukraine must stop and a ceasefire must be achieved, a German government spokesman said.

The crisis has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War, especially in the aftermath of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, an incident blamed on the pro-Russian separatists. The United States and EU states have imposed a round of trade restrictions that are hurting struggling economies in both Russia and Europe.

The risk of outright war between the two most powerful former Soviet states was highlighted on Friday when Ukraine said it partially destroyed an armoured column that had crossed the border from Russia. The report triggered a sell-off in global shares.

But Moscow made no threat of retaliation and dismissed as a "fantasy" the assertion that its armoured vehicles had entered its neighbour's territory.

The United Nations said this month that an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants, had been killed in the four-month conflict. That figure nearly doubled since the end of July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive and fighting started in urban areas.

In Donetsk which is now ringed by Kiev's forces, artillery fire has struck apartment buildings, killing and wounding residents. Officials in Kiev deny they are firing heavy weapons at residential areas.

The momentum on the ground is with the Ukrainian forces, who have pushed the separatists out of large swathes of territory and nearly encircled them in Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev says it now controls the road linking the two cities, though heavy fighting on that road raged overnight into Sunday.

Russia says the Ukrainian offensive is causing a humanitarian catastrophe for the civilian population in the two cities. It accuses Kiev's forces of indiscriminately using heavy weapons in residential areas, an allegation Ukraine denies.

In the past week, three senior rebel leaders have been removed from their posts, pointing to mounting disagreement over how to turn the tide of the fighting back in their favour.