Merkel holds crisis talks in Kiev as controversial Russian aid convoy pulls out
Hundreds of trucks from a bitterly disputed Russian aid convoy to rebel-held eastern Ukraine rolled back across the border into Russia yesterday but questions about alleged Russian artillery in Ukraine still remained.
The move came as visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev and urged a political solution to the crisis.
On Friday, Nato said it had mounting evidence that Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine and launching artillery attacks at Ukrainian troops from Ukrainian soil as well as from Russia. Moscow rejects the claim.
Paul Picard, head of the border observation mission for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said from Donetsk that all 227 Russian vehicles that had crossed into Ukraine had returned to Russia yesterday. It remained unclear what the convoy had actually delivered, since it only arrived late on Friday afternoon.
Journalists said it appeared that some of the trucks were not fully loaded.
Russia said the trucks carried only food, water, generators and sleeping bags to the hard-hit rebel stronghold of Luhansk.
A reporter on the Ukrainian side of the border who was able to look inside about 40 of the white-tarpaulined articulated trucks yesterday before they crossed back into Russia confirmed they were empty.
Russia had unilaterally sent the trucks into Ukraine through a rebel-held border, an act Ukraine promptly called an invasion. Ukraine and others - including the US, the European Union and Nato - denounced the Russian move as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and suggested the convoy could be used to smuggle supplies and reinforcements to pro-Russian separatists.
In Kiev, Merkel said she was looking forward to the outcome of talks between Poroshenko and Russian Vladimir Putin in Minsk on Tuesday. It will be their first encounter since June. Merkel expressed "hope that at least a step forward will be reached there".
Poroshenko said Ukraine was anxious to bring peace as soon as possible and solve the conflict by talks, but "not at the expense of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine". The rebels in the east have declared the region independent, and some have sought to be annexed by Russia.
Ukraine has retaken control of much of its eastern territory bordering Russia in the last few weeks, but fierce fighting for the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk persists.
Asked about what message he intended to convey to Putin at their meeting, Poroshenko said: "Take away your armed people from our territory and I can promise peace will come to Ukraine very soon."