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Weapons convoys seen rolling in eastern Ukraine

Tuesday - 8/26/2014, 6:56am  ET

FILE - This is a Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014 file photo of pro-Russian rebels as they ride on a tank in the town of Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine. A column of several dozen heavy vehicles, including tanks and at least one rocket launcher, rolling through rebel-held territory on Aug. 17. AP reporters say convoys of military weaponry and supplies have been coming from the direction of Russia into rebel-held Ukraine. Rebel fighters also described how Russian border guards did nothing to stop them. Associated Press reporters in the eastern Ukrainian town of Krasnodon observed three such convoys last week. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV
Associated Press

KRASNODON, Ukraine (AP) -- For several evenings this month, convoys of military weaponry passed with clockwork-like regularity through Krasnodon, a rebel-held town in eastern Ukraine near the porous border with Russia.

The convoys were seen three times last week by Associated Press reporters, and one of them carried about 30 units of weaponry and supplies. All were coming from the direction of Russia and heading west to where pro-Moscow separatists were fighting Ukrainian troops.

One rebel fighter described how easy it was to cross into Ukraine through a Russian-controlled frontier post in a convoy that included a tank, adding that the border officer appeared unfazed at the deadly cargo.

NATO and Ukraine have accused Moscow of covertly shuttling heavy artillery and other weapons to the separatists -- allegations that Russia routinely denies. NATO says since mid-August, those weapons have been fired from both inside Ukraine and from Russian territory.

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EDITORS' NOTE -- Associated Press journalist Mstyslav Chernov was among AP reporters who spent a week in rebel-held territory along the Ukraine-Russian border waiting for a Russian aid convoy to enter Ukraine. Here is his account:

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A safe distance from the shelling that has scarred other areas of the separatist Luhansk region, Krasnodon acts as a hub to supply the rebels with weapons and for getting much-needed humanitarian supplies to residents.

The town of 40,000 people is only 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the border. Residents venture out in the morning to buy groceries, but the streets are empty by evening. Only rebels sit and drink at the few bars still open.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the largest rebel-controlled city, Donetsk, said earlier this month that his forces were being bolstered by 1,200 fighters who underwent training in Russia. He said the fighters have 150 armored vehicles, including 30 tanks, and have gathered near a "corridor" along the Russian border.

When asked about the military hardware, Zakharchenko insisted it was all taken from Ukrainian forces in battle -- a notion scoffed at by the Ukrainian government.

On three evenings between Aug. 19 and Aug. 23, AP reporters saw large convoys of military hardware pass through Krasnodon from areas near the Russian border and head north and west, toward the fighting. They were later seen returning empty of their cargo. On other days during that period, the reporters only heard the convoys.

Supplies heading west, toward the conflict zones, are frequently seen both during the day and night near Krasnodon.

It was not the first time that AP journalists had seen heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine.

On July 17, AP reporters in the town of Snizhne saw a tracked launcher with four SA-11 surface-to-air missiles parked on a street. The bulky missile system is also known as a Buk M-1. Three hours later, people six miles (10 kilometers) west of Snizhne heard loud noises and then saw the wreckage and bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fall from the sky. All 298 people aboard were killed when the plane was shot down.

Rebel fighters in Krasnodon freely boast about their military equipment, although they have refused to give their full names, fearing repercussions if their identities were disclosed.

One told the AP on Aug. 18 that he had seen a major new arrival of equipment traveling toward the rebel-held city of Luhansk, which is virtually surrounded by government troops and has come under weeks of sustained shelling that has cut off water, power and phone service, and led to daily bread lines.

"We thought, at last! There were tanks and Buks (missile launchers) -- three battalions in all. My arm started to hurt from all the waving," he said, identifying himself with only his nom de guerre of "Vityaz."

Some of the hardware in the separatists' hands is indeed well-worn and very old. Other items are clearly new, such as the four Tigr SUVs -- a Russian version of the Hummer -- that was seen by AP journalists Aug. 19 on a country road away from the main highway near Krasnodon.

A column of five trucks carrying fuel and ammunition was seen Wednesday morning by the AP. Although covered with tarps, some of the boxes of ammunition were visible in the open back of one of the trucks. The trucks were later seen returning, empty.

In the Ukrainian villages along the snaking Seversky Donets River that forms part of the border with Russia, rebels had an array of heavy armaments, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and rocket launchers.

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