China calls for 'alternative solution' to crisis after Ukraine attacks Russian convoy
Trucks loaded with Russian relief supplies stop short of the border but military vehicles manage to cross over under the cover of darkness
The Guardian and Reuters
President Xi Jinping on Saturday called for a political solution for the Ukraine crisis to avoid confrontations, the official Xinhua news agency said, as Ukraine announced an attack on a Russian armoured column that, if confirmed, could mark a worsing in conflict.
Ukraine said on Friday that its forces had attacked and partly destroyed the Russian vehicles that entered Ukrainian territory overnight.
Russia's government denied its forces had crossed into Ukraine, and accused Kiev of trying to sabotage deliveries of aid, but European capitals accused the Kremlin of escalating the fighting.
Meanwhile, the leader of China, a key ally of Russia, said on Saturday that efforts should be made to "ease the tense situation and avoid acceleration of confrontations and conflicts in an alternative way".
Xi was speaking to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, according to Xinhua.
Xi’s comments come at a time of renewed concern over an escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. That could mean stronger economic sanctions against Russia from Europe and the United States - and harsher retaliation from Moscow.
China is a key economic and political ally of Russia, and the two countries recently signed a US$400 billion gas supply deal.
The shooting-down of a Malaysian plane in eastern Ukraine showed that "it is important and imperative to properly address the Ukraine crisis," Xi said, saying that efforts should be made to prevent Ukraine from falling into a humanitarian crisis.
All parties should work towards a political solution and "negotiate for a program that could take into consideration the interests of all parties in a balanced manner at an early date", Xi said.
Ban was quoted by Xinhua as saying that a political solution, rather than the use of force, is the only right way to resolve the Ukraine issue.
Kiev and its Western allies have repeatedly accused Russia of arming pro-Moscow separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, and of sending undercover military units onto Ukrainian soil.
But if it is able for the first time to show the remains of Russian military vehicles captured or destroyed on its territory, that would give extra force to Kiev's allegations - and possibly spark new sanctions against Russia.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military, said Kiev's forces had picked up a Russian military column crossing the border under cover of darkness.
"Appropriate actions were undertaken and a part of it no longer exists," Lysenko said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko briefed British Prime Minister David Cameron and told him a "significant" part of the column had been destroyed.
Britain summoned Russia's ambassador to ask him to clarify.
Earlier yesterday, responding to reports that a Russian column had entered Ukraine overnight, Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance had seen what he called a Russian incursion into Ukraine.
"It just confirms the fact that we see a continuous flow of weapons and fighters from Russia into eastern Ukraine and it is a clear demonstration of continued Russian involvement in the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine," the Nato chief said.
Moscow accused Ukrainian forces of intensifying the fighting against pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to sabotage Russian efforts to get aid into rebel-held areas.
The Guardian reported that while the trucks of humanitarian aid came to a halt well short of Ukraine's border, a different Russian convoy did cross into Ukrainian territory on Thursday night.
A column of 23 armoured personnel carriers, supported by fuel trucks and vehicles with military plates, could be seen travelling towards the border near the Russian town of Donetsk.
After pausing by the side of the road until nightfall, the convoy crossed into Ukrainian territory, using a rough dirt track through a gap in a barbed wire fence. Armed men were visible in the gloom as the column moved into Ukraine.
It was ironic given the attention paid to the huge convoy of humanitarian aid that moved southwards on the M4 highway.
According to Moscow, the convoy is a goodwill gesture, packed with much-needed aid. Kiev fears the convoy could be a kind of Trojan centipede, winding its way into the country at a border point no longer controlled by Ukrainian forces.
The convoy ground to a halt about 32km from the border and, over a period of two hours, the vehicles parked in neat lines. Russia's foreign ministry has said there are 262 vehicles in the convoy, including 200 carrying aid. The hundreds of men driving the trucks in the humanitarian convoy were all dressed in identical khaki T-shirts, shorts and caps, and there was something military about their bearing.
One said he was a volunteer from a non-governmental organisation, but clammed up when asked for its the name.
"I'm being paid to do a job here, not to stand around talking to journalists," he said, and then looked sheepish when reminded he had just claimed to be an unpaid volunteer.
Others said they were military veterans but claimed not to be serving currently. Two offered to open any of the trucks picked at random and show what was inside. Two trucks were chosen by journalists at the site.
Inside one were sacks filled with buckwheat, while the other contained stacked cardboard boxes. Three men pulled the tape from one of the boxes to reveal sleeping bags. The trucks did indeed appear to contain humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, Kiev's concern about the convoy, with its thinly disguised military undertones, is understandable.