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Russia is planning to send a second humanitarian convoy into eastern Ukraine “in the next few days”, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

Sergei Lavrov said the humanitarian situation there was “deteriorating”.

Ukraine did not authorize the first convoy, which returned to Russia at the weekend, fearing it carried military equipment for pro-Russia separatists.

According to the Ukrainian officials, a column of armored vehicles crossed from Russia on Monday, sparking heavy clashes.

The crossing was reported close to the south-eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

“The Ukrainian border has been breached by a convoy of several dozen tanks and armoured vehicles,” security spokesman Leonid Matyukhin told AFP.

“The convoy has been stopped by border guards… The battle is ongoing.”

More than 2,000 people have died in recent months in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists. Some 330,000 people have been displaced.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced a second humanitarian convoy for eastern Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced a second humanitarian convoy for eastern Ukraine (photo RIA Novosti)

The Russian and Ukrainian presidents are scheduled to meet in Minsk, Belarus, on Tuesday for talks on the crisis.

Sergei Lavrov said he had sent a note to the Ukrainian foreign ministry on Sunday informing it of the new convoy.

He told a news conference on Monday: “The humanitarian situation is not improving but deteriorating.

“We want to reach an agreement on all conditions for delivering a second convoy by the same route… in the coming days.”

Russia said the first convoy had delivered generators, food and drink.

Ukrainian sources said a column of about 30 armored vehicles had entered from Russia close to the port city of Mariupol on Monday, bearing symbols of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic.

Mariupol is in the hands of Ukrainian government forces, who ousted rebels in May.

When asked about a possible Russian incursion, Sergei Lavrov said that “there is enough disinformation”.

Ukraine and Western powers have accused Russia of arming the rebels, charges Moscow has denied.

There have been several previous reports of armored vehicles crossing the Ukrainian border.

Asked about Tuesday’s presidential meeting, Sergei Lavrov said: “We are ready… for any format as long as there is a result.”

He added that Russia wanted “to help Ukrainians agree among themselves”.

Sergei Lavrov also commented on the parading of captured Ukrainian government soldiers by rebels through the centre of Donetsk on Sunday.

Crowds lined the streets chanting “fascists” as the disheveled-looking prisoners walked by.

Sergei Lavrov said this was “nowhere near mistreatment” and that Ukrainian fighters’ actions often amounted to “war crimes”.

“I saw images of that parade and I didn’t see anything close to what could be considered as humiliating,” he said.

The violence in east Ukraine erupted in April when pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared independence from Kiev. This followed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March.

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All Russian trucks from an unauthorized aid convoy have now crossed back over the border from Ukraine.

The convoy returned from the eastern city of Luhansk, which is held by pro-Russian separatists. Kiev and Western officials fear the trucks may have had military equipment to help the rebels.

Russia said they had delivered generators, food and drink.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is to receive a 500 million-euro loan from Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Kiev.

The money will be used to help rebuild Ukraine’s damaged infrastructure, Angela Merkel said in a joint press conference with President Petro Poroschenko in the Ukrainian capital on August 23.

A further 25 million euros will go toward helping refugees, the German chancellor said.

Four months of fighting in eastern Ukraine have left more than 2,000 people dead. More than 330,000 people have fled their homes.

The violence erupted when pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared independence from Kiev, after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March.

Ukraine accuses Russia of arming the rebels and sending Russian soldiers into eastern Ukraine – a claim denied by the Kremlin.

Chancellor Angela Merkel met President Petro Poroschenko in the Ukrainian capital Kiev

Chancellor Angela Merkel met President Petro Poroschenko in the Ukrainian capital Kiev (photo EPA)

Prior to her arrival in Kiev, Angela Merkel described the Russian convoy’s movement into Ukrainian territory as a “dangerous escalation”.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said there was no information about what most of the convoy – of more than 200 vehicles – was carrying.

The head of the OSCE mission, Paul Picard, said that only the first 37 trucks had been inspected by the Red Cross before they set off into Russia.

The trucks had already been waiting at the border for a week, while Russia, the Ukrainian government and the Red Cross tried to come to an agreement on their passage.

The Russians said the convoy started moving because it could not wait any longer, owing to the worsening humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, which is held by pro-Russian separatists.

The White House and the Ukrainian government both described the deployment of the convoy as a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

In a phone call, President Barack Obama and Angela Merkel said the conflict had “continued to deteriorate” since a Malaysian airliner was downed last month over rebel-held territory, with the loss of all 298 people on board.

Ukraine called the Russian convoy a “direct invasion” of Ukraine.

NATO and the European Union have also criticized what they said was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

NATO officials have accused Russia of building up troops on its border, saying significant numbers of Russian forces are operating within Ukraine, using artillery.

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Lithuania’s honorary consul in Luhansk, Mykola Zelenec, has been killed in the rebel-held Ukrainian city.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted that Mykola Zelenec was “kidnapped & brutally killed by terrorists there”.

Ukraine routinely calls the pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk “terrorists”.

The news came amid reports that some Russian aid trucks had reached Luhansk without any permission from Ukraine.

There has been no comment from the rebels yet on the Lithuanian diplomat’s death.

Lithuania is among the most vociferous EU member states in its criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine. The EU and US accuse Russia of fomenting the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

The news of Mykola Zelenec’s killing came amid reports that some Russian aid trucks had reached Luhansk without any permission from Ukraine

The news of Mykola Zelenec’s killing came amid reports that some Russian aid trucks had reached Luhansk without any permission from Ukraine

Linas Linkevicius described the entry of the Russian aid convoy into eastern Ukraine as “a blatant violation of international law”, echoing Ukraine’s condemnation of the move.

The UN Security Council is holding an emergency session at Lithuania’s request to discuss the issue.

The Ukraine crisis has heightened tensions between Russia and the three Baltic republics – including Lithuania – which used to be Soviet republics governed from Moscow.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, lambasted the Lithuanian delegation on Friday.

He scorned “the indefatigable delegation of Lithuania, which is always torpedoing all productive, constructive initiatives we’ve had in the Security Council”.

Vitaly Churkin said Lithuania had amended a Russian proposal calling for a ceasefire while the aid was distributed in Luhansk. He said the Lithuanian delegation “sent in amendments where they dropped the reference to Russia and included a reference to the European Union, and then dropped the reference to a ceasefire”.

At the UN, Vitaly Churkin added, “the Lithuanian delegation starts working, and of course we know the division of labor – the US and UK are not far behind”.

The Russian aid convoy has moved across the Ukrainian border, without permission, after Russia accused Ukraine of obstructing it.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Ukraine had held up the convoy in order to pursue war against rebels in Luhansk, where the aid is destined.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was “not part of that convoy in any way”.

Reports suggest the trucks are being escorted by rebel fighters.

“Our humanitarian aid convoy is starting to move towards Luhansk,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

It warned Ukraine not to take any action against the convoy without specifying the consequences.

Ukraine fears that the aid convoy of at least 260 trucks, which arrived at the border more than a week ago, is part of a broader Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Russia denies accusations that it arms and trains the rebels in the rebellion in Luhansk and the neighboring region of Donetsk, where four months of fighting have left more than 2,000 people dead and has caused more than 330,000 people to flee their homes.

The Russian aid convoy has moved across the Ukrainian border, without permission

The Russian aid convoy has moved across the Ukrainian border, without permission (photo Reuters)

The rebel-held city of Luhansk has been without running water, power and phone communications for 20 days as government forces hold it under siege.

As many as 70 trucks have entered Ukrainian territory, moving out of the no-man’s land between the Russian and Ukrainian border posts.

Reporters at the scene saw rebel fighters in front of the convoy as it passed over the border, in a rebel-held sector near the Russian town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.

It is normally a drive of about two hours from the trucks’ camp to the city of Luhansk.

However, it is unclear if the convoy will be able to use the motorway there because of continuing combat between rebels and government forces.

An ICRC spokesperson in Moscow said it had concluded that it had not “received the necessary security guarantees from the fighting parties to allow us to escort the convoy at this time”.

It cited “heavy shelling overnight” in Luhansk.

“We understand that the convoy is now moving, however the ICRC is not part of that convoy in any way,” the spokesperson added.

The Russian branch of the ICRC said earlier it was ready to take part in the relief operation and was contacting its international colleagues.

“We are warning against any attempts to sabotage this purely humanitarian mission, which was prepared a long time ago, in an atmosphere of full transparency and in co-operation with the Ukrainian side and the ICRC,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

Delays in Ukrainian clearance for the convoy had “become unbearable”, it said.

“All excuses for blocking the delivery of aid to people in the area where this humanitarian catastrophe is happening have been exhausted,” it added.

“The Russian side has decided to act. Our convoy carrying humanitarian aid is beginning to move towards Luhansk.”

There was no immediate comment on news of the convoy’s entry from the Ukrainian authorities.

Ukrainian media did report, however, that the convoy had not received the go-ahead from Ukraine.

In a statement on its website, Luhansk’s official council reported on August 22 that the dire situation in the city remained unchanged with no halt in the bombardment.

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Ukraine military claims rockets and mortars hit vehicles moving refugees from the Luhansk area of eastern Ukraine killing dozens of civilians.

Ukraine has blamed pro-Russian rebels but they have denied carrying out the attack, near the village of Novosvitlivka.

A rebel news outlet reported a heavy exchange of artillery fire in the area.

Ukrainian forces have moved into the outskirts of rebel-held Luhansk where basic supplies are running out.

Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said “militants” armed by Russia had fired at a refugee convoy with mortars and Grad rockets, on a road east of Luhansk.

He said “dozens” of civilians had died, including women and children.

“The convoy had white flags and was marked as civilian,” Andriy Lysenko said.

Another military spokesman said people had been burned alive inside their vehicles.

A spokesman for the rebel self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Andrei Purgin, denied that rebel forces had attacked the convoy.

Ukraine military claims rockets and mortars hit vehicles moving refugees from the Luhansk area killing dozens of civilians

Ukraine military claims rockets and mortars hit vehicles moving refugees from the Luhansk area killing dozens of civilians

“The Ukrainians themselves have bombed the road constantly with planes and Grads. It seems they’ve now killed more civilians like they’ve been doing for months now,” he was quoted as saying.

Alexander Zakharchenko, a rebel leader in Donetsk, told journalists: “Not a single convoy of refugees was shot at in the Luhansk region.”

There has been sustained artillery shelling of Luhansk, a city of 250,000 people, where civilians are suffering chronic shortages of water, food and electricity. Before the conflict, the population was closer to 420,000.

Hundreds of civilians are fleeing the city every day as Ukrainian forces edge into Luhansk.

The key rebel-held town of Horlivka near Donetsk has been encircled, military officials say, in another sign that the separatists have lost ground in recent days.

Also on Monday, the rebel-led administration in Donetsk said they had introduced the death penalty for offences including treason, desertion and sabotage.

Eduard Yakubovsky, acting prosecutor-general of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said the penalty would also cover “military crimes committed… on the battlefield, such as handing over military hardware or weapons”.

Observers said the move could indicate problems within the rebels’ ranks.

More than 2,000 civilians and combatants have been killed since mid-April, when Ukraine’s government sent troops to put down the rebel uprising in the east.

Russia has said an aid convoy of some 270 lorries to a base near the Ukrainian border. The lorries are parked close to a rebel-held border post awaiting inspection as the Red Cross wants security guarantees before the aid can enter Ukraine.

Earlier Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said full agreement had been reached on the aid convoy after talks in Berlin with his counterparts from Ukraine, Germany and France.

Sergei Lavrov said no deal had been reached on achieving a ceasefire.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “the aim remains to bring about a ceasefire in Ukraine and to prevent future victims”.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the talks in Berlin had been “a difficult discussion but I believe and I hope that we made progress on some points”.

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Russian convoy trucks carrying aid to eastern Ukraine have reached a border post controlled by rebels.

The trucks seem unlikely to cross into Ukraine immediately as the Red Cross said it had still not received security guarantees for the convoy to continue.

Earlier Ukraine’s military said that separatists had shot down a government fighter jet near the rebel-held city of Luhansk in the east of the country.

A military spokesman said the pilot had ejected and was safe.

More than 2,000 civilians and combatants have been killed since mid-April, when Ukraine’s government sent troops to put down an uprising by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

It faced a new challenge on Sunday as the leader of the ultra-nationalist Right Sector threatened to withdraw volunteers fighting on the government side.

Dmytro Yarosh said Right Sector would launch a “campaign in Kiev” if its demands, including the release of detained members, were not met within 48 hours.

Russian convoy trucks carrying aid to eastern Ukraine have reached a border post controlled by rebels

Russian convoy trucks carrying aid to eastern Ukraine have reached a border post controlled by rebels

He called on President Petro Poroshenko to “immediately bring order” to the Interior Ministry, which he accused of harboring “revanchist forces”.

The government plane had been shot down after launching an attack “to eliminate a large group of rebels”, Ukrainian military spokesman Leonid Matyukhin said, quoted by AFP news agency.

The pilot ejected from the aircraft safely and rescuers delivered him to a safe location, the spokesman added.

Meanwhile some 16 vehicles from the 280-lorry Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for eastern Ukraine were seen arriving at the border.

The Red Cross, quoted by Reuters news agency, said Ukrainian and Russian customs officials had agreed to inspect the lorries.

The Izvaryne crossing where the vehicles have arrived is controlled by rebels, so it is not clear how Ukrainian officials will reach them.

Kiev has insisted that any aid sent to eastern Ukraine from Russia should cross a government-controlled part of the border.

Also, Ukraine’s Security Council tweeted that its border guards had not received any paperwork for the cargo.

The convoy has been parked near the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky for several days after setting out from near Moscow on Tuesday, said to be carrying 2,000 tonnes of aid.

Russian officials quoted by Russia’s Ria news agency said that lorries were being sent out in small groups to avoid causing traffic jams, but there were no plans for any of them to cross the border on Sunday.

The Ukrainian government said late on Saturday that it had declared the convoy “legal”, but Red Cross officials speaking at the time said it had still not been given clearance because of some outstanding security issues.

There had been fears expressed by Ukraine and by Western governments that the convoy could be carrying arms for the rebels or could be used as a pretext by Russia for military action.

Russia has denied any military involvement with the convoy.

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Igor Girkin, the military leader of pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, also known as Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, has resigned.

Alexander Borodai, the former PM of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, confirmed the news but denied reports Igor Strelkov had been wounded.

There has been heavy shelling both in Donetsk and Luhansk as Ukrainian forces battle the separatists.

The news came with a disputed Russian aid convoy stationed near the border.

Alexander Borodai confirmed Igor Strelkov’s departure to Russian media but gave no reason.

He said reports that Igor Strelkov, a Russian citizen, had been injured were “total rubbish”.

“You probably already know that he, like myself, has left his post,” Alexander Borodai said in a video posted by Russia’s pro-Kremlin Life News website.

Igor Girkin, the military leader of pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, also known as Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, has resigned.

Igor Girkin, the military leader of pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, also known as Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, has resigned (photo Reuters)

“The [Donetsk People’s Republic] already has a new defense minister.”

Alexander Borodai said the new minister went by the nom de guerre Tsar. His name was given by other sources as Vladimir Kononov.

There have been two other high-profile resignations of rebel leaders in the past week.

Alexander Borodai handed over to Alexander Zakharchenko as “prime minister” in Donetsk and the rebel chief in Luhansk, Valery Bolotov, said he was temporarily handing over to his defense minister, Igor Plotnitskiy.

The Russian aid convoy of at least 260 trucks, which moved towards the border on Thursday, has now halted.

There is continuing confusion over the final destination.

Russia has dismissed as absurd claims that its convoy is a pretext to send military supplies to the rebels.

However, Ukraine has said the Russian convoy must be inspected by international monitors before it can be let in.

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said that if this did not happen, “movement of the convoy will be blocked with all the forces available”.

Artillery fire could be heard all around Donetsk on Thursday, with the authorities urging people to stay off the streets.

Two shopping centers were reportedly hit and at least one person killed.

The situation was reported to be desperate in Luhansk, where civilians have been short of water, food and electricity for more than a week. Phone lines are also down as shelling continues.

At least some of Russian aid convoy’s 280 trucks are stalled in the Voronezh area, some 300 miles from Moscow after Ukrainian officials said they would not let it in.

Other trucks are said to be heading further south.

There have been fears Russia could use the convoy as a pretext for military action in Ukraine.

The UN says the conflict’s death toll has doubled in the past two weeks.

Altogether, at least 2,086 people have been killed since mid-April, when Ukraine sent troops against pro-Russia rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The fighting has displaced almost 300,000 people, many of whom have fled to Russia.

The Russian convoy spent Tuesday night in Voronezh after leaving a military base near Moscow on Tuesday amid fanfare.

At least some of Russian aid convoy’s 280 trucks are stalled in the Voronezh area

At least some of Russian aid convoy’s 280 trucks are stalled in the Voronezh area (photo Reuters)

A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the mission was proceeding in co-operation with the International Committee Red Cross.

The convoy was on the move inside Russia, Dmitry Peskov said, but did not comment on the route.

A Red Cross spokesman told a news conference he did not know the final route for the aid.

“I tried to get information where exactly this convoy is right now before coming here, but I don’t know the exact location still,” said Andre Loersch.

He said the ICRC had received a general description of what is in the trucks. Once it had received a more accurate list, it would be able to start work on how the aid could be transferred and distributed.

Russian TV showed the cargo, including grain, baby food and medicine, bound for civilians trapped by fighting in the area held by pro-Russia rebels.

Ukrainian officials insist that aid should pass through a government-controlled border post and be accompanied by Red Cross officials.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday that Moscow had agreed to these conditions.

“Provocation by a cynical aggressor is not permissible on our territory,” Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page.

Ukraine’s PM Arseny Yatsenyuk described the Russian move as “boundless cynicism”.

“First they deliver tanks, Grad [rocket launchers], terrorists and bandits…, and then they deliver water and salt,” Arseny Yatsenyuk said.

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Ukraine has set conditions for receiving Russian aid in the east, after a huge convoy of food and medicine set off from outside Moscow.

Security council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the Russian aid should pass through a government-controlled border post and be accompanied by Red Cross officials.

There are Western concerns that Russia is using humanitarian assistance as a pretext to invade eastern Ukraine.

At least 1,500 have died since Ukraine sent troops against pro-Russia rebels.

Ukraine has set conditions for receiving Russian aid in the east, after a huge convoy of food and medicine set off from outside Moscow

Ukraine has set conditions for receiving Russian aid in the east, after a huge convoy of food and medicine set off from outside Moscow

The fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since mid-April has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have fled to Russia.

The Red Cross says it still needs more security guarantees and information about the aid convoy.

Almost 300 trucks of humanitarian aid left the Moscow area bound for Luhansk on Tuesday morning.

Russian TV showed the cargo, said to include hundreds of tonnes of grain, baby food and medicine, which will go to civilians trapped by fighting in the area held by pro-Russia rebels.

Media reports said the cargo left from a point south-west of Moscow. It is expected to arrive at the Ukrainian border in the next two days.

“The convoy will deliver to the residents of eastern Ukraine about 2,000 tonnes of humanitarian cargo, collected by the residents of Moscow city and region,” Moscow region officials said.

Andriy Lysenko said Ukraine had three conditions for receiving the aid:

  • That it should pass through a border post controlled by Ukrainian government guards
  • That it should be accompanied by Red Cross representatives
  • That a decision should be made about the amount being sent, its destination and route. [youtube Gd2nMyqLHz8 650]

The Kremlin announced it was working with the Red Cross on sending a humanitarian aid convoy to Ukraine and EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso has told President Vladimir Putin not to carry out unilateral military action in the region under any pretext.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has accused Russia of using humanitarian grounds as a pretext for military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

At least 1,500 people have died since Ukraine’s new government sent in troops to put down an insurrection by pro-Russia separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in mid-April.

The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have fled to Russia.

Russia is accused of using humanitarian grounds as a pretext for military intervention in eastern Ukraine

Russia is accused of using humanitarian grounds as a pretext for military intervention in eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian forces have now encircled Donetsk, a city of one million people before the unrest began, and residents are struggling without power or reliable sources of food.

In a statement after Vladimir Putin’s conversation with Jose Manuel Barroso, the Kremlin said: “It was noted that the Russian side, in cooperation with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, will send to Ukraine a humanitarian convoy.”

It did not say when the aid convoy would leave. The Red Cross acknowledged last week that it had received an offer from the Russian foreign minister about organizing aid convoys to the affected areas in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government in Kiev and Western powers fear that a Russian humanitarian mission in the east could be used as a pretext to bring Russian military forces across the border.

In a telephone conversation with President Vladimir Putin on Monday, Jose Manuel Barroso “warned against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian,” an EU commission statement said.

Jose Manuel Barroso made a separate telephone call to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to discuss the situation in Luhansk, it added.

Russia has imposed a “full embargo” on food imports from the EU, US and some other Western countries, in response to sanctions over Ukraine.

PM Dmitry Medvedev said it would include fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, milk and dairy imports.

Australia, Canada and Norway are also affected.

Russia is also banning Ukrainian airlines from transit across its territory, he said in televised comments to the government.

Furthermore, the Russian government is considering banning transit flights for EU and US airlines in retaliation for sanctions over Ukraine, he said.

Barring airlines from Siberian airspace would significantly increase costs and flying time for many jets bound for Asian destinations.

EU food exports to Russia last year were worth 11.8 billion euros ($15.8 billion) while US food exports to Russia were worth 972 million euros ($1.3 billion).

Russia has imposed a full embargo on food imports from the EU, US and some other Western countries

Russia has imposed a full embargo on food imports from the EU, US and some other Western countries

Russia was the EU’s second-biggest market for food exports (10% of total), after the US (13%).

The European Commission said the Russian embargo was “clearly politically motivated”. It is considering how to respond.

Western governments accuse the Kremlin of fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine by supplying weapons and expertise to the pro-Russian separatists.

Last month the EU and the US tightened sanctions on Russia, with Brussels applying restrictions to key sectors of the economy as well as individuals. The first round of sanctions came after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March.

The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 last month, killing 298 people, exacerbated tensions between the West and Russia, as the separatists in eastern Ukraine were widely blamed. It is strongly suspected that a Russian missile system was used to down the jet.

Dmitry Medvedev ordered the agriculture ministry and producer organizations to find ways to boost Russian farm output in order to prevent price rises for consumers.

Western exports of baby food to Russia are not on the sanctions list. Western pet food is not banned either, and Russians are not barred from buying Western food abroad, within customs limits.

The Russian authorities say they are confident the supermarket shelves will not be left empty – they are searching for alternative suppliers in South America, Turkey and China.

It is estimated that in big cities, like Moscow, more than 60% of food in the shops is imported.

Researchers at Capital Economics say “far and away the most vulnerable to the Russian sanctions is Lithuania, where exports of the banned products to Russia are equivalent to 2.5% of GDP”.

The major food exporters to Russia last year were, in order of importance: Belarus ($2.7 billion), Brazil ($2.4 billion), Ukraine ($1.9 billion), Germany ($1.8 billion) and Turkey ($1.68 billion), Reuters news agency reports.

In 2013 the biggest food sector in EU exports to Russia was cheese and curd, followed by pork, then alcoholic drinks, then apples, pears and quinces.

At the end of July Russia banned all fruit and vegetable imports from Poland, which has been among the most vocal critics of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

In January Russia also imposed a ban on imports of pigs and pork from the EU. The European Commission says that move was “disproportionate”, closing a market worth 25% of total EU pig and pork exports.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a new decree banning or curbing agricultural imports from countries imposing sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

In the decree, Vladimir Putin ordered the measures, which also apply to food imports, to be introduced for one year.

Government departments were instructed to come up with a list of products subject to the order.

Russia has imposed import bans on other states in the past, but normally on grounds of public health.

Vladimir Putin has issued a new decree banning or curbing agricultural imports from countries imposing sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin has issued a new decree banning or curbing agricultural imports from countries imposing sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine

Wednesday’s decree did not specify which countries would be affected by the new measures but the EU and US recently tightened sanctions on Russia, with Brussels extending them from individuals to sectors of the economy.

Russia buys fruit and vegetables from the EU worth an annual 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion), and food and agricultural products from the US worth about 1 billion euros.

Last week Russia banned most agricultural imports from Poland on grounds of public health in what was seen as a thinly veiled retaliation for Poland’s advocacy of tough action over Ukraine.

Excerpt from Vladimir Putin’s decree:

“With the aim of protecting the national interests of the Russian Federation and in accordance with the Federal Laws of December 30, 2006, No 281-FZ <<On special economic measures>> and of December 28, 2010, No 390-FZ <<On security>>, I decree that: <<State power bodies of the Russian Federation, federal state bodies, local government bodies, legal entities set up in accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, and organizations and individuals that come under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation shall proceed in their actions from the fact that, for one year from the date when this decree comes into force, foreign economic transactions involving the importation into the territory of the Russian Federation of certain types of agricultural produce, raw materials and food of which the country of origin is a state which has taken a decision to impose economic sanctions against Russian legal entities and/or individuals, or joined such a decision, are banned or restricted…>>”

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Over 400 Ukrainian troops have crossed into Russia during heavy fighting with pro-Russian separatists at the Gukovo checkpoint in eastern Ukraine.

A Ukrainian security spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said the 311 soldiers and border guards “had to cross into Russian territory”.

Ukraine is trying to get them back now through diplomatic channels, he said.

Earlier a Russian security official said 438 Ukrainian troops had been given refuge in Russia as “defectors”.

The border area is very tense amid Ukrainian allegations that Russian forces have been helping the separatists with rocket barrages.

Over 400 Ukrainian troops have crossed into Russia during heavy fighting with pro-Russian separatists

Over 400 Ukrainian troops have crossed into Russia during heavy fighting with pro-Russian separatists (photo EPA)

Russia has announced that it will hold an air force exercise this week near the border. A Russian defense ministry spokesman said 100 aircraft would take part in the operation.

The Russian foreign ministry meanwhile accused Ukrainian forces of deploying tactical missiles and launchers near the city of Donetsk

In his statement on the Ukrainian troops at the border Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (SNBO), dismissed Russia’s claim that the troops had defected.

He also denied reports that the separatists had captured some Ukrainian National Guard servicemen during the fighting.

Another Ukrainian military spokesman said the group of soldiers had retreated into Russia after running out of ammunition and other supplies during the fighting. He said they belonged to the 72nd motorized brigade.

Recently Kiev has been gaining ground against the rebels and claims to have retaken more than 60 towns in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Civilians are preparing for a siege as government forces close in on the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Residents are stockpiling food and supplies and are sleeping in basements, with reports suggesting Luhansk is virtually surrounded and without power.

Western governments and Ukraine accuse Russia of supplying heavy weapons and volunteers to the pro-Russian rebels, who have declared independence from Kiev.

Russia denies supplying such hardware to the rebels, while condemning Kiev’s military offensive in the east.

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New clashes in eastern Ukraine have forced the international forensics team to halt operations in part of the vast crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

Observers had to withdraw from one village when they heard artillery fire although work is still continuing across much of the area.

MH17 went down on July 17 with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew.

The US and Ukraine say pro-Russian rebels probably shot down the jet with a missile but rebels deny the claim.

Alexander Hug, the deputy chief monitor with the Ukraine mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told AFP a visit to the village of Petropavlivka had been agreed with the rebels and Ukrainian forces.

New clashes in eastern Ukraine have forced the international forensics team to halt operations in part of the vast crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17

New clashes in eastern Ukraine have forced the international forensics team to halt operations in part of the vast crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17

About 70 Dutch and Australian experts are scouring a site of some 20 sq km.

A spokesman for the Dutch team said it was still focusing on searching for human remains, although security is also a key issue.

Neither the rebels nor Ukrainian forces are in full control of the site.

The Dutch team has flown in from the Netherlands two dogs trained to search for human remains and another two specialist dogs are on their way from Belgium.

The Australian team also has specialist equipment – a mini-drone fitted with a camera – but it has not yet been given permission by the rebels to fly it.

The US and Ukraine say pro-Russian rebels probably shot down the plane with a missile supplied from Russia.

The rebels say it could have been brought down by a Ukrainian fighter jet.

Most of those who died were Dutch nationals.

More than 220 coffins have now been sent back to the Netherlands.

Separately, a senior adviser to the rebels confirmed that extrajudicial killings had been carried out in eastern Ukraine “to prevent chaos”.

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Dutch and Australian forensic experts have found human remains at the site of the flight MH17 crash in east Ukraine.

They made their discovery on their first full day of searching at the site, an area of some 13.5 sq miles inside the conflict zone.

Local search parties found 227 of the 298 victims earlier and they were flown to the Netherlands for identification.

Fighting still rages, with 10 Ukrainian soldiers killed nearby on Thursday.

Dutch and Australian forensic experts have found human remains at the site of the flight MH17 crash in east Ukraine

Dutch and Australian forensic experts have found human remains at the site of the flight MH17 crash in east Ukraine

The fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatist rebels had previously prevented the investigators reaching the area.

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 airliner came down on July 17 with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew, while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

After Ukraine’s military declared a unilateral one-day suspension of operations against the rebels in Donetsk region on Thursday, an exploratory visit was made by the forensic experts, followed by the full deployment on Friday.

It is now unclear whether Ukraine’s army or separatist forces control the site, as fighting continues nearby.

The head of the search mission, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, announced that it had completed its first day of work and had recovered human remains which would be sent to the Netherlands.

He said the mission was moving to a new base in the Donetsk town of Soledar.

The investigators had travelled in 16 vehicles to the crash site, outside the village of Grabove, along with monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Artillery fire could be heard periodically somewhere in the distance during the work on Friday, AP news agency reports.

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Russia has banned the imports of fruit and vegetables from Poland, depriving it of a major export market.

Russia’s food hygiene authorities said the imports had unacceptable levels of pesticide residues and nitrates.

They earn Poland more than 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) annually.

Russia is Poland’s biggest market for apples.

The move follows EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine – and Poland has condemned Russian actions there.

Russia has banned the imports of fruit and vegetables from Poland, depriving it of a major export market

Russia has banned the imports of fruit and vegetables from Poland, depriving it of a major export market

Poland and some other former communist bloc countries are among the most vocal critics of Russia in the current crisis, accusing Moscow of supplying the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine with arms and volunteers.

The cost to Poland of the import ban is likely to be 0.6% of GDP (national output) by the end of the year, Polish Deputy PM Janusz Piechocinski was quoted as saying.

Agriculture accounts for about 3.8% of Poland’s total GDP. Polish growers plan to seek compensation from the EU for the loss of earnings.

Poles have been posting images of apples on social media as a way of protesting against Russia.

On Thursday Russia announced a ban on more imported Ukrainian food: soy products, cornmeal, sunflowers and fruit juice.

Earlier Russia banned Ukrainian dairy produce and canned fish and vegetables. Last year it banned Ukrainian Roshen chocolate, produced by billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, who is now Ukraine’s president.

Previously Russia also imposed such boycotts on Georgia and Moldova – former Soviet republics, like Ukraine, whose pro-Western policies have angered the Kremlin.

Russia is an important export market for Georgian and Moldovan wine. Currently Russia is blocking imports of Moldovan fruit. In each case the Russian authorities say they have public health reasons for imposing a ban.

In January – before its March annexation of Crimea – Russia also imposed a ban on imports of pigs and pork from the EU.

The European Commission says that move was “disproportionate”, closing a market worth 25% of total EU pig and pork exports. In 2013 those exports to Russia totaled 1.4 billion euros.

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International forensic scientists have reached the crash site of Malaysia Airlines plane in east Ukraine after the government halted military operations.

Australian and Dutch police experts arrived in a convoy of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors.

Fighting between government and rebel forces had prevented them getting there for nearly a week.

Australia believes that around 80 bodies remain at the crash site.

Explosions were reportedly heard near the site after their arrival.

A journalist for AFP news agency heard several “powerful” blasts and saw a plume of smoke less than 6 miles from the crash site.

Russian aviation experts are also in Ukraine, hoping to visit the site.

The Malaysia Airlines plane crashed on 17 July in eastern Ukraine, with the deaths of all 298 people on board.

The rebels deny that they shot it down with a missile by mistake.

Officials in Russia, which has been accused by the US and others of supplying the rebels with advanced weaponry, suggest that Ukraine’s own armed forces downed the jet – a charge rejected by Kiev.

International forensic scientists have reached the crash site of Malaysia Airlines plane in east Ukraine after the government halted military operations

International forensic scientists have reached the crash site of Malaysia Airlines plane in east Ukraine after the government halted military operations

Russia has come under increased pressure to end its support for the rebels despite having continually denied claims that it is arming and training them.

OSCE monitors on the ground said in a tweet that they had reached the crash site with the Dutch and Australian investigators after using a new access route.

Getting out of their cars, they stopped for a minute’s silence in remembrance of those killed almost two weeks ago to the hour.

The Dutch justice ministry told AFP the Dutch-Australian team was so far only a “reconnaissance” mission but would hopefully pave the way for more experts to visit soon.

The Netherlands lost 193 of its citizens in the crash while Australia lost 27 and Malaysia 43.

Speaking on a visit to Kiev, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she had been told that 80 bodies could still be at the crash site.

“We are determined to access the site, so that we can collect the remains with some dignity and return them to the Netherlands where they can be identified,” she said.

“And then the grieving families across the world who lost 298 people can have some closure.”

Malaysian PM Najib Razak said on a visit to the Netherlands that a team of 68 Malaysian police officers had arrived in Kiev to help with the investigation.

Speaking at a news conference, Najib Razak and his Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, said they were united in mourning.

Mark Rutte outlined their three shared priorities: to repatriate the rest of the passengers’ remains from Ukraine, to establish the cause of the crash and to bring those responsible to justice.

The crash area appears to be still under the control of rebel fighters, an AP news agency journalist at the scene said.

A Russian delegation led by Oleg Storchevoy, deputy head of Russia’s federal air transport agency Rosaviatsia, arrived in Kiev earlier.

“Russian experts intend to meet the head of the investigative commission… and hand over all the materials that the chairman of the commission had previously asked for,” Rosaviatsia said in a statement.

“Today, the Russian representatives will also try to reach the crash area of the Boeing 777 and together with specialists from the international investigative commission examine the state of parts of the aircraft at the site.”

There was no comment on the Russians’ involvement from Ukrainian and Dutch officials approached by AP.

The press service for Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” said troops would refrain from combat operations in the Donetsk region, except in self-defense, in order to allow investigators to do their work on Thursday.

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President Barack Obama has announced new economic sanctions against Russia over Ukrainian crisis, saying they will make Russia’s “weak economy even weaker”.

Barack Obama said the coordinated actions of the US and European Union would “have an even bigger bite” on Russia’s economy.

The new restrictions include banning Americans or people in the US from banking with three Russian banks.

The aim is to increase the cost to Russia of its continued support for pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow denies charges by the EU and US that it is supplying heavy weapons to the rebels.

Speaking at the White House, Barack Obama said the US was widening its sanctions to target the key sectors of the Russian economy – energy, arms, and finance.

President Barack Obama has announced new economic sanctions against Russia over Ukrainian crisis

President Barack Obama has announced new economic sanctions against Russia over Ukrainian crisis

“If Russia continues on this current path, the costs on Russia will continue to grow,” the president said.

The US Treasury said the banks being targeting in this round of sanctions were VTB, the Bank of Moscow, and the Russian Agriculture Bank (Rosselkhozbank).

Earlier, the EU also adopted new economic sanctions against Russia, targeting the oil sector, defense equipment and sensitive technologies.

Full details of the new EU sanctions are expected on Wednesday, when the EU is also set to name more Russian officials facing asset freezes and travel bans in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been reluctant to step up sanctions because of Germany’s trade links with Russia, said the latest measures were “unavoidable”.

Calls for the EU to act have been fuelled by the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on the Malaysia Airlines jet were killed, many of them Dutch citizens.

An international team has again failed to access the crash site, amid heavy fighting between government forces and rebels there.

Western governments believe the pro-Russian separatists shot the plane down on July 17 with a Russian missile, believing it to be a Ukrainian military flight. The rebels and Moscow deny that, instead blaming the Ukrainian military.

Last weekend, the EU subjected a further 15 Russian individuals and 18 entities to asset freezes and visa bans for their alleged involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

The list of 87 targets of EU sanctions now includes the heads of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and foreign intelligence, the president of Chechnya, as well as two Crimean energy companies.

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The downed Malaysia Airlines plane in eastern Ukraine suffered an explosive loss of pressure after it was punctured by shrapnel from a missile, security officials in Ukraine say.

They say the information came from the plane’s flight data recorders, which are being analyzed by British experts.

However, it remains unclear who fired a missile, with pro-Russia rebels and Ukraine blaming each other.

The downed Malaysia Airlines plane in eastern Ukraine suffered an explosive loss of pressure after it was punctured by shrapnel from a missile

The downed Malaysia Airlines plane in eastern Ukraine suffered an explosive loss of pressure after it was punctured by shrapnel from a missile

Many of the 298 people killed on board flight MH17 were from the Netherlands.

Dutch investigators leading the inquiry into the crash have refused to comment on the Ukrainian claims.

Heavy fighting has prevented an international police force composed of Dutch and Australian officers from reaching the crash site for a second consecutive day.

Ukraine’s army said on Monday it had managed to capture two towns near the wreckage in its bid to win back territory from the hands of the rebels.

The international delegation was stopped in Shakhtarsk, a town some 20 miles away from the area where flight MH17 was brought down.

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According to the UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine may be a “war crime”.

Pro-Russia Ukrainian rebels and the Ukrainian authorities have accused each other of shooting down flight MH17.

A Ukrainian official said on Monday that MH17’s data recorders show it came down due to “massive explosive decompression” caused by a rocket.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting has again prevented an international police force from reaching the crash site.

The Ukrainian military said it was battling separatists for control of several towns near the site in eastern Ukraine.

All 298 people on board the airliner – mostly Dutch – died on July 17.

The downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine may be considered a war crime

The downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine may be considered a war crime

International police want to help secure the huge site so that plane wreckage and human remains can be examined by international crash experts.

Most of the bodies have been removed, many of them repatriated to the Netherlands.

“This violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime,” Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said of the downing of MH17.

“Every effort will be made to ensure that anyone committing serious violations of international law including war crimes will be brought to justice, no matter who they are,” she said.

Navi Pillay spoke as the latest UN report on Ukraine suggested at least 1,129 people have been killed and 3,442 wounded in the Ukraine conflict since mid-April.

The conflict has displaced more than 200,000 people, many of whom have fled east to neighboring Russia.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters on Monday that recovered flight data showed the aircraft crashed due to a massive, explosive loss of pressure after being punctured multiple times by shrapnel.

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According to Dutch PM Mark Rutte, sending out an international military force to secure the site of the downed Malaysian Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine is “unrealistic”.

The site is currently controlled by pro-Russia rebels who have been accused of shooting down flight MH17.

All 298 people on board – most of them Dutch – died.

In the latest fighting in the area, 13 people were killed as troops try to seize Horlivka from the rebels.

Separately, the US has released images to back its claim of Russian firing into Ukraine.

The images, showing marks on the ground and impact craters, suggest fire from multiple rocket launchers, the US state department says.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte says sending out an international military force to secure the site of the downed Malaysian Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine is unrealistic

Dutch PM Mark Rutte says sending out an international military force to secure the site of the downed Malaysian Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine is unrealistic

The pictures also indicate the separatists are using heavy artillery supplied by Russia, it added.

Russia denies supplying the rebels with heavy weaponry or firing across the frontier with Ukraine.

The rebels have been accused of shooting flight MH17 down by mistake, but Russia blames the Ukrainian military, an allegation Ukraine denies.

The crash site has yet to be properly investigated and some bodies have still not been recovered. An international push is under way to get the site secured.

However, Mark Rutte, speaking to reporters in The Hague, said: “Getting the military upper hand for an international mission in this area is, according to our conclusion, not realistic.”

He said it would be “such a provocation to the separatists that it could destabilize the situation”.

Mark Rutte said all options were being looked at. The Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia had been considering a joint operation.

Dutch experts on Sunday cancelled plans to head to the site after international officials said fighting in the region was still going on.

“We can’t take the risk,” said Alexander Hug, of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

There are still plans for Australia and the Netherlands to deploy 49 police officers, following a deal struck by Malaysia with the rebels to allow international police at the site.

“Our objective is to get in, get cracking and to get out,” Australian PM Tony Abbott said.

The eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have been gripped by heavy fighting as government forces try to retake rebel strongholds.

Aside from the fighting in Horlivka, shelling was also reported close to the MH17 crash site, near the town of Grabove, on Sunday.

Rebels have prevented journalists going to the site and Ukrainian government forces are said to be nearby.

A total of 227 coffins containing the remains of the victims have been sent for identification to the Netherlands, which is leading the crash investigation.

The first MH17 victim has been identified, though officials did not reveal any details.

Officials say the exact number of bodies already collected will be determined only after forensic experts have completed their examination.

Russia said on Sunday it had set up its own team of experts to investigate the plane crash, according to RIA Novosti agency.

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Russia has warned that new EU sanctions against it over the Ukraine crisis will jeopardize security co-operation against terror.

The Russian foreign ministry said the EU would bear the blame for the move which sees 15 officials and 18 entities subject to asset freezes and visa bans.

The EU and the US accuse Russia of backing Ukraine’s rebels. Moscow denies this.

Meanwhile, the last remains of the victims of the crashed Malaysia Airlines jet flew out of eastern Ukraine for the Netherlands.

The departure of the aircraft from the city of Kharkiv with 38 coffins brings the total number of bodies sent for identification to 227.

Russia has warned that new EU sanctions against it over the Ukraine crisis will jeopardize security co-operation against terror

Russia has warned that new EU sanctions against it over the Ukraine crisis will jeopardize security co-operation against terror

The Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed on July 17, killing all 298 people – including 193 Dutch nationals – on board.

Pro-Russian separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine have been accused of downing the plane by a missile.

Russia has frequently denied sending heavy weapons into Ukraine. Moscow has suggested the plane could have been shot down by the Ukrainian military. Ukraine has denied the charge.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine erupted in April and is believed to have claimed more than 1,000 lives.

In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said the new EU sanctions showed that the 28-member bloc was taking “a complete turn away from joint work with Russia on international and regional security, including the fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, organized crime and other challenges”.

“We believe these decisions will be greeted enthusiastically by international terrorists.”

In a separate statement, the Russian ministry also accused the US of “an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia”.

The EU sanctions were agreed after lengthy negotiations in Brussels on Friday.

The senior Russian officials targeted include Federal Security Service head Alexander Bortnikov, foreign intelligence head Mikhail Fradkov and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian security council.

The leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, is also on the list.

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The US State Department says it has evidence that Russia has fired artillery across the border targeting Ukrainian military positions.

Russia also intends “to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers” to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, the US State Department said.

Russia has frequently denied sending any rocket launchers into Ukraine.

The US comment comes a week after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine, with the rebels widely accused of shooting it down.

The US State Department says it has evidence that Russia has fired artillery across the border targeting Ukrainian military positions

The US State Department says it has evidence that Russia has fired artillery across the border targeting Ukrainian military positions

Multinational efforts to find the cause of the crash are under way, led by the Netherlands which lost 193 of its citizens. All 298 people on board the flight died in the crash.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte has announced 40 unarmed military police are being sent to the crash site as part of efforts to find the last MH17 victims.

He said there would be more people working on the crash site and his government was looking at ways to make it more secure.

The US, which has repeatedly accused Russia of fuelling separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine, says it believes that rebels shot down flight MH17 with a Russian-provided SA-11 Buk surface-to-air missile, probably by mistake.

Leading rebels in eastern Ukraine have given conflicting accounts of whether they had control of a Buk launcher at the time the plane was downed.

State department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Thursday the US had evidence derived from “human intelligence information” showing Russia firing artillery into eastern Ukraine.

She said the US would not provide further details so as not to compromise sources and methods of intelligence collection.

Earlier on Thursday, the EU said it was adding 15 people and 18 entities to the list of sanctions against Russia and Ukraine.

It comes as two more planes carrying the remains of some of the passengers and crew of flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands for forensic identification at a barracks south of the Dutch city of Hilversum.

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Two jets carrying bodies from crashed Malaysia Airlines plane have landed in the Netherlands where a day of mourning for the 298 victims has been declared.

Experts there will begin to identify the dead, most of whom were Dutch.

Pro-Russian rebels have been widely accused of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines plane on July 17.

UK government sources say intelligence shows rebels deliberately tampered with evidence, moving bodies and placing parts from other planes in the debris.

As fighting continued in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, officials in Kiev said that two aircraft, thought to be military jets, had been downed just 20 miles from the MH17 crash site.

The officials had no information on the cause of the crashes, or the fate of the pilots.

Planes carrying bodies from crashed MH17 flight have landed in the Netherlands

Planes carrying bodies from crashed MH17 flight have landed in the Netherlands (photo EPA)

US intelligence officials had earlier released evidence to the media that they said showed the separatists’ involvement in bringing down flight MH17.

Rebels have also been accused of exaggerating the number of bodies transported from the crash site to the town of Kharkiv on Tuesday.

They had claimed 282 bodies had been loaded on to a train, but experts said only 200 could be verified.

The two military planes – one Dutch and the other Australian – carrying the first 40 coffins landed at Eindhoven air base to be met by members of the Dutch royal family, PM Mark Rutte and hundreds of victims’ relatives.

Churches around the Netherlands rang their bells for five minutes before the planes landed.

A fleet of hearses was standing by to convey the bodies to the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks south of the city of Hilversum for identification.

PM Mark Rutte said that process could take months.

Earlier, the coffins had been slowly loaded on to the planes by a military guard of honor at Kharkiv airport in eastern Ukraine.

Ambassadors, officials and soldiers gathered to see off the planes.

Australian government envoy Angus Houston said the ceremony was intended to give the victims the “respect and dignity they deserve” after a “tragedy of unspeakable proportions”.

In a separate process, the “black box” flight-data recorders from MH17 have arrived in the UK, where they will be examined at the headquarters of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Farnborough.

A rebel militiaman told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had been ordered to the crash site minutes after the MH17 plane had gone down.

He said his commanders had told him: “We’ve just shot down one of the Kiev fascists’ planes.”

The militiaman said: “We thought we were looking for baled-out Ukrainian pilots but instead we found dead civilians.”

Earlier in Washington, officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence presented evidence they had gathered on the involvement of the rebels.

“It’s a solid case that it’s an SA-11 [missile] that was fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped create,” said the officials, who requested that their names not be reported.

They said the “most plausible explanation” for the shooting down of the plane was that rebels mistook it for another aircraft.

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The first remains recovered from Malaysia Airlines MH17 plane that crashed in Ukraine last week are to be flown to the Netherlands for identification.

The Netherlands is holding a day of mourning for the 298 killed in the July 17 crash, 193 of whom were Dutch.

Meanwhile, US intelligence officials say pro-Russian rebels shot down the jet by mistake, but they have not found any direct link to Russia.

The plane crashed in a rebel-held area after apparently being hit by a rocket.

A refrigerated train carriage carrying about 200 bodies from the crash site arrived in the government-held city of Kharkiv on Tuesday.

About 50 coffins were laid out at the airport on Wednesday morning in preparation for the flight.

Investigators said they would continue to search the crash site for more bodies.

The first remains recovered from MH17 plane that crashed in Ukraine are to be flown to the Netherlands for identification

The first remains recovered from MH17 plane that crashed in Ukraine are to be flown to the Netherlands for identification

The first bodies from flight MH17 are due to arrive in Eindhoven at 16:00 local time after a farewell ceremony attended by Ukrainian officials in Kharkiv.

Members of the Dutch royal family and PM Mark Rutte will meet the plane.

The bodies are then due to be taken to the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks for identification.

Mark Rutte said that process could take months.

In a separate process, the “black box” flight-data recorders from MH17 have been handed to Dutch authorities by Malaysian officials.

The devices will be sent to Farnborough in the UK for analysis.

In Washington, officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence presented evidence they had gathered on the involvement of the rebels.

“It’s a solid case that it’s an SA-11 [missile] that was fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped create,” said the officials, who requested that their names not be reported.

They said the “most plausible explanation” for the shooting down of the plane was that rebels mistook it for another aircraft.

The evidence they presented included:

  • Satellite images of a facility allegedly used to train rebels near the Russian city of Rostov
  • Other images purportedly showing a surface-to-air missile launcher in the area
  • Analysis of voice recordings of pro-Russian rebels apparently admitting bringing the airliner down
  • Photos and messages from social-media sites pointing to rebel involvement

The US and other nations have accused rebels of blocking access to the crash site, putting valuable evidence at risk.

In Australia, former President Bill Clinton paid tribute to six HIV/Aids campaigners who were on board MH17.

Bill Clinton said their lives had been “overpowering in their contribution to a shared future”.

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