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Russian aid convoy near Ukraine's border

A local woman reacts as she inspects the damage after shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. At least three people have been killed in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine as the government intensifies its shelling campaign. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) -
A local woman reacts as she inspects the damage after shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. At least three people have been killed in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine as the government intensifies its shelling campaign. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
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By Alexander Roslyakov, The Associated Press

KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia - A large Russian aid convoy headed toward Ukraine Thursday, taking a road leading directly toward a border crossing controlled by pro-Russian rebels in the Luhansk region.

Ukraine's government threatened to block the convoy if the cargo could not be inspected, and Kyiv announced it was organizing its own shipment of humanitarian aid.

The Russian convoy of more than 200 vehicles had been parked at a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh since late Tuesday amid disagreement over how and where the aid could be delivered to Ukraine, where government troops are battling pro-Russia separatists.

On Thursday the white trucks, some flying the red flag of Moscow city and accompanied by green military vehicles, travelled down a winding highway through sunflower fields and rolling green hills. They turned off that road near the city of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, driving west toward the Ukraine border crossing of Izvaryne, which is currently under rebel control.

The route suggested Russia was intent on not abiding by a tentative agreement to deliver aid to a government-controlled border checkpoint in the Kharkiv region, where it could more easily be inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross. Moscow has insisted it co-ordinated the dispatch of the goods, which it says range from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags, with the international Red Cross.

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, said Ukraine would be forced to act if the Russians refused to allow inspection of its cargo. "In this case, movement of the convoy will be blocked with all the forces available," he said, though it was unclear what Ukraine's forces could do.

Although the border crossing where the trucks were likely to pass remained in rebel hands, areas south of Luhansk have been bitterly fought over and the location of forces is in constant flux. It's unclear whether all the towns and villages on the road from the border to Luhansk are controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk said talks between the organization, Ukraine and Russia were continuing, but she could not confirm where the Russian convoy was headed.

"The plans keep changing, the discussions are going ahead and we will not confirm for sure until we know an agreement has been reached," Isyuk said in Geneva.

Russia's Foreign Ministry says there are 262 vehicles in the convoy, including about 200 trucks carrying aid.

Putin addressed hundreds of lawmakers Thursday in the Black Sea resort of Yalta in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March, but his speech did not deal directly with the convoy.

In a relatively subdued address, Putin said Russia's goal was "to stop bloodshed in Ukraine as soon as possible." Moscow should improve life in the country "without building a wall from the West," he said, but asserted that Russia would "not allow anyone to treat us with arrogance."

On Thursday, the Ukrainian government announced that it was dispatching its own aid convoy to the region.

Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Maxim Burbak said three convoys totalling 75 trucks are transporting humanitarian aid from the capital, Kyiv, and the cities of Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. Burbak said the vehicles would be carrying around 800 tons of aid, including grain, sugar and tinned food, destined eventually for Luhansk .

Leaders in Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of providing arms and expertise to pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, who have been battling government forces since April. Moscow has denied those charges, but the breakdown in communication over humanitarian aid has further stoked fears of Russian intervention.

Attempts to ease the humanitarian crisis come as Ukrainian forces step up their efforts to dislodge the rebels from their last strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, and there was more heavy shelling overnight.

The sounds of artillery fire and blasts could be heard all over Donetsk, and that shells hit two shopping complexes in the city centre, the city council said in statement.

"We appeal to Donetsk citizens to limit their presence on the streets of the city," the statement said.

The U.N.'s human rights office in Geneva said Wednesday that its "very conservative estimates" show the overall death toll has risen to at least 2,086 people as of Aug. 10, up from 1,129 on July 26.

___

Nataliya Vasilyeva in Yalta, Crimea, Laura Mills in Moscow, Peter Leonard in Kyiv, Ukraine, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.

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