DONETSK, Russia -- After nearly a week of inaction, a Russian aid convoy destined for the besieged, rebel-controlled Ukrainian city of Luhansk rumbled to life on Wednesday, with 16 of its trucks passing through a Russian border checkpoint.
Before heading to Luhansk, though, the trucks still have to be checked by the Russian border service, Ukrainian border guards and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Sergei Karavaytsev, an officer in Russia’s Emergencies Ministry, said in a telephone interview.
There is no telling how long that might take, he said, nor did he know whether there were guarantees of safe passage from the Ukrainian government or the rebels who control both the border and the road to Luhansk.
However, Red Cross officials said they had received guarantees of security overnight from parties to the fighting along the road to Luhansk, a spokesman for the agency said, and were making final preparations to get the convoy underway.
A Red Cross team that left Geneva on Tuesday had deployed to eastern Ukraine on Wednesday and driven to Luhansk to check that the roads to be used by the convoy were passable, Ewan Watson, a Geneva-based spokesman, said in a telephone interview.
The contents of the trucks will have to be checked by Ukrainian border officials in the presence of Red Cross staff, Mr. Watson said, adding, “We’re still waiting for the final go-ahead before inspection starts.”
As an added complication, though, the Ukrainian government reported Wednesday that it had wrested control of significant parts of Luhansk from the rebels, after prolonged shelling and days of street fights that have left at least 52 people dead.
If those reports are confirmed, Ukraine, which has its own aid convoy for Luhansk, might not see any need for the Russian convoy, which Ukraine has long viewed with suspicion.
Two Russian Orthodox priests visited the parking lot in the Russian city of Donetsk where the trucks have sat for five days and blessed them around sunset.
One of the priests, Oleg Orlov, from Moscow, said that he offered “final words” for the drivers of the trucks.
He said that far-right Ukrainian saboteurs may try to destroy the convoy.
“Man proposes, but God disposes,” he said, asking the men to put their faith in god.
“I believe that they will get to Luhansk.”
Russia has said the trucks are carrying water, canned meats, baby food and other products, though reporters who have been shown the trucks say that many are only half-filled.
The first truck left shortly after 8 p.m. local time with an Orthodox icon on the dashboard propped up against the windshield.
The aid convoy left Moscow on Aug. 12 but has been stuck for days at the border near the Russian town of Rostov amid fears on the part of authorities in Kiev that it was a cover for Russian military intervention to help pro-Russian rebels under increasing pressure from Ukrainian forces.
The Red Cross was satisfied with the details Moscow provided about the supplies, which include food, water and generators, and the Russian and Ukrainian governments have agreed on procedures for the convoy to cross the border, Mr. Watson said.
The convoy of roughly 260 trucks, each with one Russian driver, will cross the border in batches, escorted by Red Cross officials traveling in their own vehicles, Mr. Watson said.
The trucks will unload their cargo in Luhansk and local Red Cross teams will deliver the aid from there to communities cut off from access to basic supplies by fierce fighting.
Source: The New York Times