Moscow/Kiev: Russia's controversial aid convoy to war-torn eastern Ukraine returned across the border on Saturday, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel held crisis talks in Kiev with the country's pro-Western leaders.
The visit by Angela — the most influential Western leader to call on Kiev since the start of the crisis in the ex-Soviet state — comes ahead of a crunch meeting between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia next week.
Tensions soared to a new high on Friday after the Kremlin unilaterally sent what it said was an aid convoy across the border to the insurgent stronghold of Lugansk in a move Kiev branded an "invasion".
The West rebuked Russia over the convoy, with Washington warning Moscow it could face further sanctions while the UN Security Council voiced concerns it could escalate the four-month conflict.
Kiev and the West feared the convoy could be used to bolster the struggling rebels or provide Moscow with a pretext to stage a full-scale intervention but Moscow insisted it was helping civilians.
Unloaded in Lugansk
Footage on Russian state media showed the cargo being unloaded in Lugansk, which has been without power or water for weeks.
An official from Lugansk's city council told AFP that rebels had begun organising for aid to be handed out to local residents.
Russia said the trucks were carrying around 1,800 tonnes of aid including food, water, medicine and electrical generators, but there was no way to independently verify this.
Russia's foreign ministry said it was "satisfied" with the aid delivery and suggested it could be prepared to send in more.
Fighting has intensified as Ukraine pressed on with a punishing push into dwindling rebel-held territory in a bid to deal a knockout blow to the insurgents.
Kiev has accused Russia of stepping up arms supplies to the flagging rebellion but Moscow has denied these claims, and is demanding that Ukrainian forces immediately cease fire.
US President Barack Obama and Merkel had warned in a telephone call that the Russian convoy marked a "dangerous escalation" of the conflict in Ukraine with Western fears that it could presage Moscow sending in troops.
Merkel, who has played a central role in trying to end the crisis, will have to tread a fine line in Ukraine, showing firm support for Kiev's leaders while also pushing for restraint in their increasingly successful — but deadly — offensive.
The German leader received flowers before getting down to talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, ahead of the first meeting in months between Poroshenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Minsk alongside top EU officials.
Poroshenko has pledged to "talk peace" with Putin but insists that an end to the conflict that has cost more than 2,200 lives can be achieved only if pro-Kremlin fighters are pulled out of Ukrainian territory.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in a newspaper interview that establishing a federal Ukraine would be the only "viable path" to ending the crisis, a statement likely to set off alarm bells in Kiev where such ideas have been fiercely opposed.