A long convoy of Russian trucks left Ukraine on Saturday, concluding a controversial mission to deliver aid to civilians in cities caught up in fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian security forces.
Russia’s decision to send the convoy across the Ukrainian border Friday without an International Red Cross escort or customs clearance had provoked a storm of international controversy.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, slammed the move as a “flagrant violation of international law.” Another Ukrainian official accused Russia of launching a “direct invasion.”
By Saturday afternoon, Russian officials said the convoy had departed Ukraine after delivering food and medicine to the embattled city of Luhansk. “The Russian convoy has left Ukrainian territory and is in the territory of the Russian Federation,” a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry told Interfax.
The Foreign Ministry said it was “satisfied” that the mission had been completed “as intended” and pledged to continue delivering humanitarian aid to southeast Ukraine.
”We are receiving numerous messages from the people of Luhansk grateful for such a kind attitude on the part of Russia,” the ministry said in a statement.
A convoy of about 200 Russian trucks had been parked near a section of the Russian-Ukraine border for more than a week waiting for authorization and security guarantees before crossing into Ukrainian territory. Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, suspected that Russia would use the convoy to deliver military equipment to pro-Moscow separatist fighters.
On Friday, Russia said it had lost patience with “endless, artificial” attempts by Kiev to stall the mission and would send the convoy into Ukraine without obtaining final clearance from the country's authorities.
The crisis in southeast Ukraine had grown too serious to allow further delays, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone on Friday, Kremlin officials said. “Given the obvious protractions by Kiev on the issue of the delivery of Russian aid to southeast regions of Ukraine ... a decision was made to send the convoy,” Putin said, according to the Kremlin's news service.
Representatives of the International Red Cross had planned to escort the convoy, but the agency pulled out on Friday citing concern about security in southeast Ukraine, where government troops have stepped up attacks on rebel strongholds in the last week.
Merkel visited Kiev on Saturday for talks with Poroshenko that were planned before Russia sent the convoy into Ukraine. Poroshenko said Ukraine was facing a difficult test and he thanked Germany for supporting his country.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department released a statement criticizing the reported killing of an honorary consul representing Lithuania, saying: “Today we were shocked to hear reports that Lithuanian Honorary Consul Mykola Zelenec was abducted and murdered by separatist groups operating in Luhansk.”
The statement included no other details.
Gorst is a special correspondent.