Aleksey Chernyshev / AFP / Getty Images

Deadly rebel counteroffensive a setback for Ukraine forces

Violence comes as Kiev officials begin inspecting a Russian aid convoy

Pro-Russian rebels killed at least 19 Ukrainian troops Thursday, a setback for Kiev’s military forces after they made significant headway in recent weeks against a dogged insurgency in the country’s restive east.

Separately, Ukrainian border guards began inspecting a Russian truck convoy carrying aid earmarked for humanitarian relief in eastern Ukraine. The convoy has been stranded at the border between the two countries for more than a week.

Ukrainian government officials said the troops died in intense battles in the strategically important town of Llovaisk, near the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, the BBC reported. Donetsk was the site of heavy shelling that hit residential neighborhoods on Wednesday. Rebel and government forces fought street battles there and in other towns across the east.

The forces of the Western-backed government have been steadily gaining the upper hand over the separatists in eastern Ukraine and are tightening the noose around the main rebel bastions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Luhansk has been largely cut off by the conflict and is into its 19th day without water or regular supplies of electricity. The power problem has hit mobile and landline phone connections. Only vital foodstuffs are on sale in the few shops remaining open.

That has prompted Russian calls to deliver the humanitarian aid, but Kiev has been reluctant to accept it, seeing the convoy of some 260 trucks — carrying water, food and medicines — as a possible Trojan horse for Russia to get weapons to the separatists. Moscow dismisses that notion as absurd.

"I can confirm that at 2:15 p.m. (7.15 a.m. EDT) the Ukrainian side began border-customs formalities relating to the Russian humanitarian cargo," border guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko told Reuters. Asked on whose territory the cargo was, he replied, "On the territory of the Russian border point."

It was not clear when the trucks would be authorized to enter Ukrainian territory. The area where the trucks would enter Ukraine is under rebel control. The rebels granted Kiev's border guards permission to access the crossing to check the trucks.

Ukraine has insisted that the truck convoy comply with border inspections and other formalities before being allowed to cross into its territory under supervision by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which will be responsible for distributing the aid.

The Geneva-based ICRC has sent 35 staffers to help smooth the way for the Russian convoy and intends to accompany the Russian drivers and trucks with its own vehicles.

"We are ready to roll with this convoy. There has been a last-minute delay. We are hopeful that it will be resolved shortly," ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson told Reuters. "Last-minute decisions from the Ukrainian side have delayed the process," he said, declining to elaborate.

The ICRC has begun delivering aid donated by the Ukrainian government to a number of towns in eastern Ukraine, including Starobilsk, Lysychansk and Syevyerodonetsk, with the help of the Ukrainian Red Cross.

The United Nations has put the death toll in the conflict at over 2,000, including civilians and combatants. That figure has nearly doubled since late July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive and the conflict spread to major urban areas.

McDonald’s closings

Tensions between the West and Russia over the fighting in Ukraine were underscored Wednesday as Moscow moved to suspend the operations of four McDonald’s restaurants.

Russia’s food safety watchdog issued a statement saying inspectors found numerous sanitary violations, but many suspect the move was part of a broader political tit-for-tat amid dueling sanctions that Western nations and Russia have placed on each other.

Asked if the decision was in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries, a Kremlin source declined to comment and referred to the statement about sanitary violations.

McDonald's Russian unit said in a statement, "We are studying the essence of the claims to determine the steps necessary to open the restaurants for the customers as soon as possible."

Foreign food producers that have fallen foul of the food safety watchdog in the past accused it of acting in Moscow's political interests, which the agency denies. It previously banned Georgian wine after Tbilisi strengthened ties with Washington and spirits from Moldova after the former Soviet republic boosted its drive to partner with the European Union.

Earlier this month, Russia banned all meat, fish, dairy, fruit and vegetable imports from the U.S., the European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia for one year in retaliation for sanctions they imposed over Ukraine.

However, some of those restrictions were eased on Wednesday to allow the import of some items that are useful to the country’s own food and agriculture industries, such as vegetables for planting and hatchlings of salmon and trout.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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