Image via AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
Dozens of civilians, including women and children, were reportedly killed today after rebels hit vehicles carrying people trying to flee the ongoing fighting in the eastern Ukraine.According to military spokesperson Anatoly Proshin a "powerful artillery strike" hit a convoy, which was carrying white flags and under the escort of the Ukrainian army."People were burned alive inside — they didn't have time to get out," he told Ukrainian news channel 112.ua.
Andriy Lysenko, spokesperson for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, called the act a "bloody crime" and the work of "bandits" using weaponry given to them by the Russian Federation.But rebel leader Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, has denied that his fighters were responsible for the attack, and instead claimed that Kiev-backed forces were behind the deadly assault."If someone was killed, it wasn't us, but the Ukrainian military," he said, pointing to the mounting civilian death toll incurred during the anti-terror operation in the country's east.Who's Who in the Donetsk People's Republic? Read more here.Russia also continues to deny Kiev and its western allies' allegations that it is supporting the rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine by allowing men and weapons to pour across the country's porous eastern border — despite swaths of evidence to the contrary, including eyewitness accounts by journalists and NATO satellite images.Caught in the crossfire are terrified citizens trapped in the chaos. As fighting becomes increasingly fierce, hundreds of people are attempting to flee the area on a daily basis. Many of the cars traversing their way through the ever-shifting maze of checkpoints carry white signs reading "children" or "miners" — the workforce of the region's stable industry — in the hope it will save the passengers on board from artillery and sniper fire.
According to the figures released Friday by the UN, at least 344,000 have fled eastern Ukraine since fighting broke out, and a "conservative estimate" puts the civilian death toll at over 2,000 — a number that has more than doubled in two weeks alone.Meanwhile a humanitarian aid convoy sent by Moscow to eastern Ukraine remains stalled in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky — about a mile and a half shy of Russia's border with Ukraine — for another day, as diplomatic wrangling over the cargo continues.On Sunday, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that "all issues had been resolved," and the International Red Cross previously stated that border officials from both countries were set to do a joint inspection of the vehicles load shortly. But today a top-level meeting in Berlin attended by German, Ukrainian, and French foreign ministers appeared to have yielded no practical results and Lavrov emerged saying that "no progress has been made."Moscow says the 262 trucks bound for Luhansk are loaded with food, baby products, and other vital supplies, and they pose no threat. But Kiev says it fears that the aid convoy is merely a modern-day Trojan horse that will be used as a pretext for invasion.Journalists who have inspected some of the trucks have found no evidence of any weapons stashed in the cargo, but reported that several vehicles were bizarrely only half-filled with sacks of buckwheat.
Surrounded by Ukrainian forces, Luhansk, with a pre-war population of nearly 450,000, is subject to near-constant shelling on its outskirts, and has been without water and electricity for more than two weeks. Between one and two thirds of Luhansk residents are believed to still be inside the city, where telecommunication networks are near totally down.Despite Moscow's aid overtures, the rebels show no sign of looking for a way out of the fighting. On Saturday, former miner and the new prime minister of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, said that 1,200 fighters "trained in Russia for four months" were being moved across the border. In a stark contradiction to Moscow's denials of support in the form of arms, Zakharchenko, who leads the Russian-nationalist group Oplot, which predates the current conflict, also bragged that 150 piece of military hardware including 30 tanks were en route to the rebels.Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem