Pro-Russia separatists who control part of Ukraine's eastern border allowed Kiev customs officials into the occupied territory Thursday to inspect a Russian convoy seeking to carry aid to the militants' last two strongholds.
The long-delayed inspection of Moscow's 280-vehicle relief convoy encouraged a senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross to predict that the 2,000 tons of food, water, sleeping bags and generators could reach civilians in Luhansk as soon as Friday.
The convoy had been parked for the past week in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in Russia's Rostov region, about 20 miles east of the Ukrainian border, while authorities in Kiev and Moscow battled over conditions for its onward passage.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who initially rejected the notion of Russia sending the convoy for fear it would bring arms and other support to the flagging separatist forces, a week ago agreed to the delivery on condition it was escorted by Red Cross officials across a government-controlled border crossing after inspection by Ukrainian customs agents.
The Russian convoy instead headed for the border crossing at Izvaryno, which has been under insurgent control since April and off-limits to Ukrainian customs workers.
Once the contingent of customs inspectors was granted safe passage to Izvaryno, the first trucks of the Russian convoy pulled into the border crossing and were undergoing cargo searches late Thursday, both Russian and Ukrainian officials reported.
A Red Cross advance party entered Ukraine through Izvaryno on Wednesday to scout out the proposed route to Luhansk, where as many as 200,000 residents have had little food and no running water or electricity since the beginning of August.
"In Luhansk and other affected areas, there is an urgent need for essentials like food and medical supplies and to restore contact between separated loved ones," Laurent Corbaz, ICRC head of operations for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement from Moscow, where he has been working with Russian officials to secure safety guarantees for the Red Cross escorts as they travel through Ukrainian regions controlled by Russian loyalists.
The Red Cross and Russian officials have called for a cease-fire in the region while the aid is being distributed. A pause in the hostilities would likely coincide with an expected visit Saturday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has been playing a leading role in efforts to negotiate an end to the Ukraine crisis that has taken more than 2,000 lives in less than five months.
Meanwhile, street fighting and artillery exchanges continued as Ukrainian troops closed in on Luhansk and Donetsk, the two eastern Ukraine cities where separatists still occupy regional government administration buildings.
At least 16 people were killed Thursday, according to Kiev and separatists sources, as fighting has been intensifying ahead of Sunday's 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. On Wednesday, at least 50 people died, many of them civilians caught in crossfire as they ventured out of cellars in search of food and water.
Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the previous 24 hours in the occupied eastern cities, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council told reporters at his daily briefing in Kiev. He said three Luhansk residents, including a 5-year-old girl, were killed by separatist gunfire as they tried to escape the embattled city in a car flying a white flag. Two other civilians died in the area, the security spokesman said.
Russian media quoted separatist officials in Donetsk in reporting two civilians killed in an artillery strike on the city that was formerly home to 1 million residents, and that four prisoners died when a shell struck the jailhouse in the nearby town of Makiyvka.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry also claimed that troops had captured two Russian armored vehicles near Luhansk that were registered to an elite paratrooper unit involved with the February seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region. Kremlin-controlled Russia Today television said the military vehicles didn't belong to Russia and the documents found in them were five years out of date.