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Updated: Sat, 23 Aug 2014 06:43:56 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Russian aid convoy begins leaving Ukraine



Trucks marked as being from a bitterly disputed Russian aid convoy to Ukraine, return to Russia as people wait to enter Ukraine at the border post at Izvaryne, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014. An Associated Press reporter counted 67 trucks entering the border crossing in the Russian city of Donetsk before noon Saturday. Another AP reporter on the Ukrainian side of the border said a line of trucks about 3 kilometers (© 2 miles)

Trucks marked as being from a bitterly disputed Russian aid convoy to Ukraine, return to Russia as people wait to enter Ukraine at the border post at Izvaryne, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014. An Associated Press reporter counted 67 trucks entering the border crossing in the Russian city of Donetsk before noon Saturday. Another AP reporter on the Ukrainian side of the border said a line of trucks about 3 kilometers (2 miles) long was waiting to cross. The checkpoint on the Ukrainian side was being operated by separatist rebels, who inspected the trucks. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits/Associated Press

Trucks marked as being from a bitterly disputed Russian aid convoy to Ukraine began returning to Russia on Saturday.

An Associated Press reporter counted 67 trucks entering the border crossing in the Russian city of Donetsk before noon, local time, on Saturday. Another AP reporter on the Ukrainian side of the border said a line of trucks about three kilometres long was waiting to cross. The checkpoint on the Ukrainian side was being operated by separatist rebels, who inspected the trucks.

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Around 40 of the tractor-trailer trucks seen by journalists on the Ukrainian were empty, but it could not be determined if any others were carrying cargo.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying its humanitarian aid has been delivered to its

intended destination and that it intends to do more missions with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the near future.

"We confirm our intention to continue cooperation with the ICRC in attempts to provide humanitarian aid to the people of south-eastern Ukraine", the statement said.

One driver who declined to give his name said the entire convoy of about 260 was expected to return Saturday to Russia. The state news agency RIA Novosti cited the Russian customs service as saying the trucks would move in six groups.

The convoy drove Friday into Ukraine bound for Luhansk, a city in eastern Ukraine hard-hit by weeks of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels. The Ukrainian government and Western countries denounced the move as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and accused Russia of using the convoy to smuggle supplies and reinforcements to rebel fighters.

In the Northwest Territories, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the convoy “disgraceful,” and dismissed it as a military incursion in the guise of humanitarian aid.

Russia said the white-tarped trucks were carrying food, water, generators and sleeping bags. Some trucks were opened to reporters a few days ago, and at least some of those items could be seen.

West critical of Russian moves

In a separate development, NATO said it has mounting evidence that Russian troops are operating inside Ukraine and launching artillery attacks from Ukrainian soil — deeper involvement in the fighting than the West has previously alleged. Russia also rejected that accusation.

It remained unclear Saturday what the Russian convoy had actually delivered. Unloading hundreds of trucks in less than a day in a war-battered region represents a big task. AP journalists who followed the convoy to Luhansk on Friday said rattling sounds from some trailers indicated they were not fully loaded.

The convoy's entry caused Russia-Ukraine tensions to spike. The convoy had languished on the border for nearly two weeks amid disputes about over whether Ukraine would permit it entry or whether all sides in the conflict would provide security guarantees sought by the Red Cross.

Russia sent the trucks in Friday, saying it had lost patience and Luhansk was on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe. Ukraine condemned it as a "direct invasion."

At the United Nations in New York, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin rejected accusations that Russian troops were inside Ukraine. Russia has also steadfastly denied supporting and arming the rebels.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. The United Nations says more than 2,000 people have been killed and 340,000 forced to flee their homes during the fighting.

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