MOSCOW (AFP) - A senior military official said on Saturday that Russia wants a "humanitarian bridge" to ferry multiple aid shipments into war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine.
Russian authorities, social organisations and businesses "are thinking of organising not one humanitarian convoy, which we have already sent, but a second, third, tenth," Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov told the state RIA-Novosti news agency in an interview.
"In general, we would like for there to be a normal humanitarian bridge between" Russia and the rebel-held cities of Lugansk and Donetsk where many civilians have been trapped by fighting.
Russia sent a convoy of more than 200 lorries carrying what it said was over 1,800 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Lugansk last weekend without the final approval of Ukrainian authorities and without Red Cross monitors. Kiev called it an "invasion" and the West upbraided Moscow for violating Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Russian and Ukrainian authorities are now discussing the dispatch of a second aid convoy.
Ukraine is worried that an aid convoy could serve to supply pro-Russian rebels, or worse as a pretext for a Russian invasion if the lorries came under attack, and has been nervous about Moscow trying to increase its role and presence in the region under the cover of humanitarian aims.
Antonov did not use the word "corridor", which would imply more strongly a military presence to protect aid workers.
In June, Russia's RBK news group quoted a source in the defence ministry as saying that troops stationed near the border were ready to intervene to protect the civilian population from attacks by the Ukrainian army.
Kiev and the West now accuse Russia of having sent in regular troops into Ukraine, who are spearheading a lightning counter-offensive that has seen rebels seize swathes of south-eastern territory from government forces, dramatically turning the tide in nearly five months of conflict.
Nato said on Thursday that Russia had sent at least 1,000 troops to fight alongside the rebels, along with air defence systems, artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles, and had massed 20,000 troops near the border.
Antonov reiterated denials that Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine. "The Russian Federation is not conducting any military operations in Ukraine and will not do so," he was quoted as saying by RIA-Novosti.