DONETSK: Artillery shells hit close to the centre of Ukraine’s separatist-held city of Donetsk for the first time on Thursday, killing at least one person, as a large Russian aid convoy rumbled towards the border.

With Ukrainian government forces tightening the noose on pro-Russian separatists, shelling rocked Donetsk, sending frightened residents rushing for cover, witnesses said.

Two shells landed 200 metres from the Park Inn Radisson, one of the city’s main hotels, shattering windows. The blasts opened up a yawning hole on the third floor of an apartment block and left a broad crater on the pavement.

Nearby, a body covered by a sheet lay stretched out on the blood-stained ground.

In a related development, Ukrainian troops surrounded the rebel bastion of Lugansk by cutting the last road linking the city to the Russian border, a military spokesman said. Government forces captured the village of Novosvitlivka therefore “closing off the final road connection between Lugansk and other territory controlled by the Russian mercenaries, in particular the border post of Izvaryne,” security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.

Meanwhile, a huge Russian convoy carrying 2,000 tons of water, baby food and other humanitarian aid drove through southern Russia towards the frontier, while Kiev repeated it could not enter until Ukrainian authorities had cleared its cargo.

The pro-Western Kiev government says the humanitarian crisis is partly of Moscow’s making and has denounced the dispatch of aid as an act of cynicism. It is also fearful that the operation could become a covert military intervention by Moscow to prop up the rebels who appear on the verge of defeat.

Moscow, which denies charges of giving the rebels heavy weapons, has dismissed as “absurd” suggestions it could use the convoy as a cover for invasion.

By Thursday evening, the convoy had stopped near Kamensk-Shakhtinsky and one of the drivers said it would be heading to the crossing point at Izvarine, which is held by the Ukrainian rebels.

If this were the case, Ukrainian border guards and customs officers would be unable to conduct proper formalities and make the checks they say are needed on the cargo.

“The cargo will all the same have to be looked at by Ukrainian border guards and transferred to representatives of the Red Cross,” said military spokesman Lysenko. It was not immediately clear how this could happen. —Agencies

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2014

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