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Ukraine at odds with Russia over relief convoy

A Russian aid convoy drove just outside the Ukrainian border Thursday. Ukraine officials want the convoy’s cargo inspected by the Red Cross before it enters the country.

YURI KOCHETKOV/EPA

A Russian aid convoy drove just outside the Ukrainian border Thursday. Ukraine officials want the convoy’s cargo inspected by the Red Cross before it enters the country.

KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia — Raising the stakes in Ukraine’s conflict, a Russian aid convoy of more than 200 trucks pushed up to the border Thursday but then stopped, provocatively poised to cross into rebel-held territory.

The Ukrainian government threatened to use all means available to block the convoy if the Red Cross was not allowed to inspect the cargo. Such an inspection would ease concerns that Russia could use the aid shipment as cover for a military incursion in support of the separatists, who have come under growing pressure from government troops.

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The United States has warned Russia that it needs to secure Ukraine’s permission for the convoy to enter.

‘‘We’ve made that very clear to the Russians that they should not move these trucks in without taking all of the steps the Ukrainian government has outlined,’’ US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday.

Amid the tensions surrounding the convoy, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso called Russian and Ukrainian leaders to arrange three-way consultations on ways to de-escalate the crisis.

Barroso’s office said that details will be worked out through diplomatic channels.

Ukraine announced it was organizing its own aid shipment to the war-wracked separatist region of Luhansk.

Complicating the dispute over the dueling missions, Ukraine said Thursday it has gained control over a key town near Luhansk city, thereby giving it the means to block the presumed route that the Russian convoy would take to the city.

The town, Novosvitlivka, lies about 25 miles from the border, so if the Russian trucks did enter the country, they potentially could unload somewhere other than the city itself.

The Russian convoy set out Thursday morning from a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh where it had been parked since late Tuesday. Moscow says the convoy has 262 vehicles, including about 200 trucks carrying aid.

The white-tarped trucks, some flying the red flag of Moscow and escorted by military vehicles, drove down a winding highway through sunflower fields and then turned west toward the rebel-held border crossing of Izvaryne.

But about 17 miles from the border, the trucks pulled off and parked in a large field where dozens of beige tents had been set up. Drivers in matching khaki shorts and shirts piled out and appeared to be stopping for the night.

The route suggested Russia has decided not to abide by a tentative agreement to deliver aid to a government-controlled border checkpoint in the Kharkiv region, where it could more easily be inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross.

Taking Novosvitlivka ‘‘disrupted the last opportunity for movement between Luhansk and other territories controlled by Russian mercenaries,’’ Ukrainian security council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters.

Lysenko also said that if the Russians refused to let the Red Cross inspect the cargo, ‘‘the movement of the convoy will be blocked with all the forces available.’’

Ukraine suspects the convoy could be a pretext for a Russian military invasion or further support for the pro-Russian rebels it has been fighting since April.

While the disputed aid convoy stopped short of the border, The Guardian newspaper reported seeing a separate convoy of Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine late Thursday.

The paper said a column of 23 armored personnel carriers with Russian military plates crossed through a gap in barbed wire fence into Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine and the West have long accused Russia of carrying out such incursions to help arm the rebels, claims that Moscow denies. It was impossible to independently verify the report.

After a clumsy and ineffectual start, Ukraine’s forces have taken back much of the territory once held by rebels.

As the circle around the separatists tightens, two of their top figures have resigned in the past week. On Thursday, the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic said its defense minister Igor Girkin had resigned.

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