Ukraine: refugees 'burnt alive' in rocket fire strike on convoy
Ukraine forces and pro-Russian rebels blame each other for attack outside eastern city of Luhansk
A convoy of vehicles carrying Ukrainian refugees has been hit by rocket fire, with Ukraine's military and the rebels blaming each other for the strike.
The death toll is currently unknown but a military spokesman said that people were "burnt alive" in the vehicles.
The rocket fire came as refugees fled the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk today. One military spokesman told Ukrainian news channel 112.ua that "many people have been killed, including women and children".
He added: "A powerful artillery strike hit a refugee convoy near the area of Khryashchuvatye and Novosvitlivka. The force of the blow on the convoy was so strong that people were burnt alive in the vehicles – they weren't able to get themselves out."
Another military spokesman blamed the attack on "terrorists", a term frequently used by Kiev to describe the pro-Russian rebels.
However, Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, denied responsibility for the attack. He told Reuters: "The Ukrainians themselves have bombed the road constantly with airplanes and Grads. It seems they've now killed more civilians, like they've been doing for months now. We don't have the ability to send Grads into that territory."
Once home to 425,000 people, Luhansk's population has dwindled to 250,000 since mid-April, with hundreds of civilians leaving each day to escape the fighting. The separatist stronghold has been left with chronic water, food and electricity shortages for weeks.
Today's attack came just hours after Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that an agreement had been reached with Germany, France and Kiev on the delivery of Russian humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine. Russia last week sent a convoy of nearly 300 trucks, which it said contained humanitarian aid, but it was delayed at the border over concerns that it may have been carrying military equipment. The convoy is believed to be destined primarily for Luhansk.
Is Russian 'aid mission' to Ukraine a pretext to invade?
Russia has been warned not to use humanitarian assistance as a pretext to invade eastern Ukraine as it sends 280 aid lorries to the rebel stronghold of Luhansk, the BBC reports.
Moscow says the Ukrainian government has agreed to the operation but the Ukrainian foreign ministry said it was not immediately able to comment on the convoy.
Russian media have said the cargo, including grain, baby food and medicine, will be given to civilians trapped by fighting in the area held by pro-Russia rebels. But Western leaders share the concerns of many Ukrainians that Russia could use the initiative as a pretext for sending troops into the rebel-held territory.
President Putin said yesterday that Russia was launching the mission in co-operation with the International Red Cross. The humanitarian group said it had agreed in principle to such a mission but that practical details needed to be clarified.
Thousands of people are without access to water, electricity and medical aid in eastern Ukraine, the Red Cross said. At least 1,500 people have died since fighting began in mid-April, according to the United Nations.
Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, agreed that "any Russian intervention in Ukraine without the formal, express consent and authorisation would be unacceptable and a violation of international law," according to a White House statement reported by ABC News.
Ukraine news: army 'headed for victory'
As fighting continues around the Malaysia Airlines crash site, Ukraine's army chief says he is confident of a swift end to the crisis.
Separatist leaders called on Russia to send troops to their aid on the weekend as the Ukrainian army made gains in key areas, leaving rebels "in danger of being encircled", The Guardian reports.
The Ukrainian defence minister, Colonel General Valeriy Heletey, told the BBC that he is certain that the Ukrainian army will defeat the rebels in the country's east "very soon".
Civilians in the rebel-held towns of Donetsk and Luhansk are said to be bracing themselves for a siege as government forces close in. According to reports, residents are stockpiling food and sleeping in their basements.
Col-Gen Heletey said that the tide was turning on the rebels: "I am sure 100 per cent, just like every person in the Ukrainian armed forces, there will be victory and very soon.
"It is the highest prize – people are dying, but we have no choice. Ukraine is like a burning house. The Ukrainian army is going inside the burning house to put the fire out. If we don't put it out it will be in Kiev, in Kharkiv, everywhere, we are asking every Ukrainian to take a bucket of water and help us to put the fire out."
The east of Ukraine has been unstable since rebels occupied government buildings in April, declaring the region to be independent shortly afterwards. Kiev has accused Russia of arming rebels with weapons including the Buk missile system, suspected of downing flight MH17. Russia denies the accusations.
Col-Gen Heletey said that Russia was continuing to provide support to the rebels, even as the army closed in on them.
"More than 65 towns and villages have been liberated by Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk region," he said.
"Our forces are in an offensive phase, but I want the world to know that Russia is retaliating".