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Associated Press
Drivers of the first trucks of the Russian aid convoy are parked Friday in eastern Ukraine.

Kiev angry as Moscow sends convoy into Ukraine

– The conflict between Russia and Ukraine hit dangerous new heights Friday as Russia sent an enormous aid convoy into rebel-held Ukrainian territory without the permission of the Kiev government, a move that a top Ukrainian security official described as a “direct invasion.”

The maneuver came amid reports from NATO that Ukrainian troops were coming under Russian artillery fire from inside their borders.

“Russian artillery support – both cross-border and from within Ukraine – is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement accusing Moscow of a “blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments” that would intensify a crisis he said it had helped to create and fuel.

“The disregard of international humanitarian principles raises further questions about whether the true purpose of the aid convoy is to support civilians or to re-supply armed separatists,” Rasmussen said.

It was the strongest denunciation of Russia’s role in Ukraine that NATO has issued and the first time the alliance has accused Russian forces of firing artillery at the Ukrainian army from within Ukraine.

The charges coincide with Russia’s decision to move a convoy of more than 200 trucks into Ukraine on Friday without either government permission or the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday morning that Moscow had run out of patience with “delays” and other “excuses” from Ukraine after a nearly 10-day standoff. It said Ukraine’s leaders were deliberately trying to slow-walk the delivery of aid to the war-torn region of Luhansk until “there is no one at all to provide help to.”

The White House condemned the Russian action and said it raised the likelihood that Russia planned the convoy as a pretext for invasion.

“At the same time as Russian vehicles violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia maintains a sizable military force on the Ukrainian border capable of invading Ukraine on very short notice,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

“We recall that Russia denied its military was occupying Crimea until it later admitted its military role and attempt to annex this part of Ukraine.”

U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe, separately condemned “Russia’s illegal incursion” into Ukraine as he expressed concern about the massing of 20,000 Russian “combat-ready troops” on the border with eastern Ukraine and the flow of Russian arms and operatives to pro-Moscow separatist forces.

The unauthorized convoy “indicates that Russia is more interested in re-supplying separatists rather than supporting local populations,” Breedlove said in a statement.

Ukrainian authorities appeared to be scrambling Friday to decide how to respond to the border incursion.

Officials had threatened a military response if the Russian convoy tried to force its way into Ukraine, despite the risk of triggering an all-out invasion by Russian forces. Yet allowing the trucks to disperse across the Luhansk region without any Ukrainian controls in effect allows Russia to force a cease-fire in Kiev’s fight against pro-Russian separatists.

State security chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko told journalists in Kiev that Ukrainian forces would not use force against the convoy because they want to avoid “provocations.” But Ukraine’s prime minister struck a more confrontational tone.

“It’s clear that Russia is not planning to conduct any humanitarian mission,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on national television. “We need to use all methods to stop Russian military aggression.”

For Ukrainian officials, a potential military response ultimately depends on whether the Russian convoy tries to do anything more than distribute aid.

“If we find in the convoy some other equipment, some other equipment that’s not humanitarian aid, then the direction will be different,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, stopped short of calling the movement an invasion but said “it strains credulity to think that this equipment’s not moving across the border accompanied by Russian forces.”

Kirby called on Russia to withdraw vehicles and personnel and threatened “additional costs and isolation” otherwise. That is a reference to potential further economic sanctions on Russia and diplomatic ostracizing of Moscow, tactics the West has applied for months with little success.

“They should not be doing this under the guise of a humanitarian convoy,” Kirby said.