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Red Cross Awaits Safety Guarantees as Ukraine Truce Talks Start

Aug. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Red Cross demanded safety guarantees before it begins inspecting the first 16 trucks from a convoy Russia says is carrying humanitarian aid at the Ukrainian border, as the nations’ top diplomats met to discuss a possible truce.

Ukraine agreed to let Russian aid cross into separatist- held territory under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said it still hadn’t received the safety guarantees it needs. In Berlin, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov began talks with Germany and France to ease tensions after officials in Kiev said their troops had destroyed part of an armored column from Russia.

“What’s at stake tonight is to see if we can find ways toward a cease-fire that are realistic and sustainable and that could give us hope of an early end to the fighting,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told journalists before the talks in his country’s capital. “We are a long way off from relieving the tension. People are still dying.”

European leaders are pushing to halt the conflict that has killed more than 2,000 people and fractured Ukraine since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March. The war, which Ukraine and its allies say is being fueled by Russia’s support for the rebels, has also touched off sanctions that have hurt trade and threatened to send President Vladimir Putin’s $2 trillion economy into a recession.

Trucks Waiting

Ukrainian forces continued to be shelled from Russian territory, and authorities saw three Russian Grad artillery missile vehicles cross the border into Ukraine, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said today. Russia rejects U.S., European Union and Ukrainian accusations that it’s supplying the rebels with arms, men, financing and artillery support.

Ukraine has expressed concern that the Russian relief mission may be a guise for funneling more weapons to insurgents. Under yesterday’s agreement, the mission of about 275 trucks will proceed through a border checkpoint and the ICRC will be responsible for distributing the aid once it inspects it.

“We need guarantees from all sides involved in the process,” Red Cross spokeswoman Galina Balzamova told reporters in Rostov, Russia. “Once we get the guarantees of security, an inspection will start.”

Luhansk Besieged

Balzamova said talks with Russian, Ukrainian and rebel officials will continue tomorrow and that 20 Red Cross workers had come in Russia’s Rostov region to take part in the inspections. Anatoliy Makarenko, head of Ukraine’s state customs service, said once inspected, the cargo would be taken in by the Red Cross in batches of 30 trucks each.

At the border, fresh white paint was peeling off of 16 trucks to show a khaki undercoating like that found on military equipment. Trucks at the assembly point were about a third full of bags labeled “grain” and boxes of canned goods, a Bloomberg reporter said.

The Red Cross also delivered 100 tons of aid provided by Ukraine to villages in the country’s east, it said in a Twitter post.

Luhansk, a city of more than 400,000 where Ukrainian forces are trying to encircle the separatist rebels, went for its 15th day without power and water, the City Council said on its website. In Donetsk, the City Council urged residents to store water because the main supply line had been damaged and would be shut off, according to its website. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled both cities to escape fighting.

‘Military Victory’

The only way to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in the region is to pull back government troops, Oleg Tsarev, speaker of the separatists’ self-declared parliament, said in an interview to Russian state TV Rossiya 24.

“Militias are the only hope now,” Tsarev said. “The only way to stop the war is a quick military victory.”

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said in an internet video yesterday that separatists had amassed 150 armored vehicles, including 30 tanks and other assault carriers, plus another 1,200 fighters who received four months of training in Russia that arrived in Ukraine “at the most important moment.”

Ukraine and Russia have been sparring over claims by Ukraine on Aug. 15 that its troops attacked a military column from Russia after a journalist for the Guardian posted images of what they said were light armored assault vehicles moving over the frontier.

“We have repeatedly said that there were no arm supplies to the east of Ukraine,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said by phone.

‘Information War’

Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said Ukraine’s comments on the armored column are based on “fantasies,” RIA Novosti reported on Aug. 15. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Ukraine’s statements “provocation,” and part of an “information war.”

Today’s meeting in Berlin may be a first step toward a new peace summit, French President Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement. Steinmeier said ‘the real drama’’ was that previous agreements between Ukraine, Russia and the rebels hadn’t been met.

“If we aren’t careful and take care of the process, we can slide into a confrontation between Ukraine and Russian forces,” he said, before the ministers walked along the shore of a lake in Germany. “There is no guarantee that today’s talk will be successful.”

“The conversation is not going to be easy.” Klimkin said in a Twitter post. It’s “hyper-important to stop inflow of mercenaries and weapons from Russia.”

Warplane Downed

Rebels shot down a Mig-29 fighter jet over Luhansk region, with the pilot ejecting from the aircraft, military spokesman Leonid Matyukin said on Facebook today.

Rebels have shot down more than 20 Ukrainian helicopters, warplanes and transport aircraft, including another Mig-29 on Aug. 8. They’ve used weapons that Ukrainian officials say include Russian-supplied Buk surface-to-air missiles like the one the U.S. says they used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last month, killing all 298 people on board.

Ten people died and eight were wounded by shelling in Donetsk over the last 24 hours, the city council said on its website. Lysenko said rebels had abducted at least 1,009 people since the government began its anti-separatist campaign.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke yesterday by phone with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and according to a White House statement, the two “agreed that Russia’s sending military columns across the border into Ukraine and its continued provision of advanced weapons to the separatists was inconsistent with any desire to improve the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine.”

EU governments have warned Putin they’re ready to expand sanctions if the conflict worsens. Putin pledged during a visit to Crimea last week that he would work to halt the conflict.

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