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October 31, 2014

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Russia to send humanitarian convoy into Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine — Russia will send a humanitarian convoy into Ukraine in cooperation with the International Red Cross, the Kremlin said Monday, despite strong opposition from the Ukraine and the West.

It wasn't immediately clear if Russia has reached agreement with Ukraine on the issue, or if it has decided to move unilaterally as Ukrainian government forces have been closing in on a few remaining rebel strongholds.

Shortly after the Kremlin statement was released, the office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced he was on a call with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Ukraine has objected against Russia sending any aid to the region, and the West has strongly warned Russia that any attempt to send its military personnel into Ukraine under the guise of humanitarian assistance would be seen as an invasion.

The Kremlin statement was made in a readout of a telephone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

It didn't say when the convoy would leave or provide any other details.

There was no immediate comment from the Red Cross.

Barroso's office said in a statement after the call that he warned Russia "against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian."

Barroso also talked to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, emphasising "the EU's readiness to increase its support to the Ukrainian government-led humanitarian response efforts as well as to international humanitarian organisations."

In the past week Ukrainian government forces have intensified their military operations and surrounded Donetsk, the largest city in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. Exchanges of rocket fire and deaths from shelling have become a feature of daily life and hundreds of thousands have chosen to flee.

Rockets slammed into a high-security prison Monday in the main rebel-held city of Donetsk, igniting a riot that allowed more than 100 prisoners to flee, authorities in eastern Ukraine said.

Donetsk city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky said a direct rocket hit killed at least one inmate and left three others severely wounded. In the chaos, he said 106 prisoners escaped, included some jailed for murder, robbery and rape.

In the past week Ukrainian government forces have intensified their military operations and surrounded Donetsk, the largest city in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. Exchanges of rocket fire and deaths from shelling have become a feature of daily life and hundreds of thousands have chosen to flee.

The prison break became possible after a substation providing the building with electricity was damaged, disabling the facility's alarm system.

"Extremely dangerous prisoners are now free. It is hard to know the extent of threat this poses to the city, which is flooded with weapons," Rovinsky said.

Rebels routinely accuse government forces of using heavy artillery in their campaign to retake Donetsk.

But Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko blamed the prison strike on separatist fighters.

"Bandits in Donetsk shelled residential quarters and correctional facility No. 124," he said.

Prisoners said the rocket hit their building late Sunday night.

"At around 10 p.m., after lights went out and the prisoners began heading to their sleeping quarters, a rocket hit this place," said one prisoner, who gave his name as Vova Kordemansky. "Nobody was in this room, but one guy downstairs had his head blown off."

Officials with Ukraine's state penitentiary service said later Monday that 34 prisoners had returned to the jail. It was not immediately possible to verify that claim.

One of the prisoners who had apparently returned to the prison told The Associated Press that inmates were forced to flee to avoid incoming rockets, but were apprehended in a nearby neighborhood.

Both Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian rebels who want independence for their eastern region have deployed heavy and often imprecise weapons in the battle that began in April. Apartments and other civilian buildings have frequently been hit, adding to the mounting death toll among civilians.

Rovinsky said Monday at least 10 homes, shops and garages were hit by overnight rockets. He added that 20,000 people had no electricity in Donetsk and an estimated 400,000 have fled the city, which had a pre-war population of 1 million. Many shops have closed and supplies are dwindling at the few still open.

Local authorities have attempted to continue providing basic services, such as trash removal and a skeleton bus service.

The Ukrainians army's strategy has focused on encircling Donetsk and nearby rebel towns and breaking off road links with other separatist towns and villages further east, closer to the Russian border.

Many of those in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine distrust the new central government in Kiev, which came to power after the February ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych, whose power base was in eastern Ukraine.

Fighting began a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's peninsula of Crimea in March.

Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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