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Ukraine president announces international humanitarian mission in eastern Ukraine

| Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 7:24 p.m.
Ukrainian government soldiers from battalion 'Donbass' search from house to house in village Mariinka near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. The Red Cross will lead an international humanitarian aid operation into Ukraine’s conflict-stricken province of Luhansk with assistance from Russia, the European Union and the United States, Ukraine said Monday.(AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on Monday that an international humanitarian mission would be sent to the war-torn east of his country, in a fragile move toward peace on a day in which fighting continued unabated.

The announcement was made shortly after the Kremlin said it is sending a “humanitarian convoy” of its own to Ukraine under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Kremlin did not provide details about the timing or the form in which the aid would be delivered.

With Western officials warning that any unilateral moves by Russia would be treated as an invasion and NATO's top official saying on Monday that there was a “high probability” that Russia would invade Ukraine, the Kremlin statement appeared to take Ukrainian leaders by surprise. Minutes after the Russian announcement, Poroshenko spoke to President Obama by telephone.

After that conversation, Poroshenko's office said the international humanitarian mission would take place and that Obama had assured him of U.S. willingness to join in the efforts in the eastern region of Luhansk.

Poroshenko agreed to an “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,” his office said. “Barack Obama confirmed the intention of the USA to take active part in the international humanitarian mission.”

The White House said after the call that Obama “noted the urgency of such humanitarian efforts,” but it stopped short of announcing any U.S. aid commitments. It also said that “any Russian intervention in Ukraine without the formal, express consent and authorization of the Ukraine government would be unacceptable and a violation of international law.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yevhen Perebyinis, said Ukraine had told Russia that it would accept humanitarian aid only if it was delivered via U.N. or Red Cross channels and through Ukrainian-controlled border checkpoints.

No details were given about when the aid would reach residents, and there were warning signs that the help might not be imminent.

The Red Cross said that because it does not accept armed escorts, “all parties” must guarantee the security of its staff and vehicles. That would include the pro-Russia rebels in the affected region, who at times have fought among themselves about how to treat international organizations on the ground.

Heavily armed rebel escorts accompanied observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as they traveled the Donetsk region after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last month, and they at times complained about their access to the crash site.

The aid measures may help ease the growing crisis in the east, where about 250,000 residents who remain in the city of Luhansk have been without electricity or water for nine days, according to officials there.

But even if aid does reach those residents, Ukraine appeared to have no intention of stopping its military operations in the region. Heavy fighting continued in Donetsk, about 75 miles away, as officials vowed to retake the rebel stronghold.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso that “Russia, working together with International Red Cross officials, is sending a humanitarian convoy to Ukraine.”

Barroso's office said that in his conversation with Putin, he had “warned against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian.” A Barroso spokesman later said Putin would send the aid through international organizations.

Separately on Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there is a “high probability” of a Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

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