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By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Monday that he was sending an aid convoy to eastern Ukraine on a humanitarian mission in which the International Committee of the Red Cross and Western governments were cooperating.

Putin made the announcement after a conversation with European Commission President Jose Manuel Borroso, who also spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about the proposal, which Kiev had rejected repeatedly. Ukraine’s government feared Moscow was planning to send aid to embattled pro-Russia separatists.

Ukrainian troops have been closing in on the separatist-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk in recent weeks, and artillery exchanges have knocked out power and water to many areas of the insurgents’ last strongholds.

There was no answer at ICRC headquarters in Bern, Switzerland, as the relief agency’s offices were closed by the time Putin made his announcement. Russian media reports last week claimed ICRC involvement in an abortive attempt to send armored vehicles into eastern Ukraine, a fact later disputed by the agency committed to neutrality in conflict zones.

As the Kremlin pressed its insistence on coming to the aid of the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine communities, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen repeated warnings that Russian troop movements around Ukraine’s eastern border suggested a “high probability” that Moscow was preparing to invade.

Borroso’s initial statement on his conversation with Poroshenko said only that the two had “discussed a proposal for humanitarian relief for eastern Ukraine.” It gave no indication of an agreement on the subject, and the European leader warned that any attempt by Russian forces to cross into Ukraine without Kiev’s consent would be seen as an invasion.

Ukrainian government forces in the past month have recaptured more than half of the territory seized by separatists in March and April, and Kiev authorities said Monday they were in the “final stages” of regaining control of the insurgents’ last two strongholds.

More than four months of fighting have cut off the areas still under control of the separatists from deliveries of food and medicine, prompting appeals from those who remain in the cities for relief and a protected corridor for evacuation to Russia.

Poroshenko spoke with President Barack Obama after the Russian announcement of aid being dispatched, and the Ukrainian leader’s office announced that the mission was agreed to with United States and European Union support.

“The U.S. president expressed support for the actions of the Ukrainian president, particularly to his initiative on the international humanitarian mission for Luhansk under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross, with participation of the EU, Russia, Germany, and other partners,” Poroshenko’s office said. “Barack Obama confirmed the intention of the USA to take active part in the international humanitarian mission.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had announced the humanitarian operation to Russian media earlier Monday, suggesting it was imminent unless Ukraine’s Western allies interfered.

“With careful optimism, I can now say that, I think, all possible and impossible pretexts have been dismissed. I hope that in the very nearest future this humanitarian action will take place under the authority of the Red Cross,” Lavrov said.

In comments to Russia Today television, the Kremlin’s top diplomat added that he hoped that “Western partners won’t put a spoke in the wheel and will think about the people who are badly in need of water and electricity.”

Fighting on the outskirts of the two separatist-held cities continued over the weekend, taking at least three lives and injuring more than a dozen, the Donetsk city administration reported.

AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov

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