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June 27, 2017

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Europe blasts Russia over incursion as convoy waits

KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia--Europe voiced alarm Friday over reports that Moscow had sent military hardware into conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, as Kiev prepared to inspect a controversial Russian "aid" convoy parked up at the border.

Tensions, already high over fears Moscow could use its humanitarian mission as a "Trojan horse" to help rebels, spiraled further after Ukraine's military confirmed British media reports that a small convoy of Russian armored vehicles was seen breaching the frontier.

"If there are any Russian military personnel or vehicles in Ukraine they need to be withdrawn immediately or the consequences will be very serious," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.

Moscow has denied the allegations, the latest claims from the West that it has sent amour across the border to help pro-Kremlin separatists who launched an insurgency against Kiev in April.

The fate of the Russian aid convoy remained unclear despite Kiev appearing ready to let it cross into rebel-held territory after days of wrangling.

Kiev said 59 border officials were at a Russian border post to inspect the 300-truck convoy and were waiting for permission from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

'Speed of the essence'

The ICRC said Russia and Ukraine were ironing out details over the shipment and once an agreement was reached it would deliver the aid.

"People are struggling to cope with limited access to basic services such as water and electricity, so speed is of the essence," said Laurent Corbaz, ICRC head of operations for Europe and Central Asia.

A representative of Russia's emergency situations ministry said however the trucks could remain parked up some 30 kilometers (20 miles) away "for several days," state news agency RIA Novosti reported, without elaborating.

Ukraine fears the convoy is a ploy to help to pro-Russian insurgents, as their rebellion has showed signs of unraveling after four months of fighting that has left more than 2,000 people dead including children and sent around 285,000 fleeing their homes.

Top rebel military chief Igor Strelkov and another key commander announced Thursday they were quitting after Ukraine's military said it had completely surrounded Lugansk, cutting all links to the border with Russia.

Ukraine's military said troops were pushing on with their offensive by retaking three small towns, while fierce clashes were also reported on the outskirts of Lugansk, where local officials have spoken of a humanitarian crisis.

Five soldiers were killed in fighting in the past 24 hours, it said.

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