KRASNODON, Ukraine – 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, with one carrying 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.
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:
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.
Every day, usually in the evening, the sound of artillery barrages can be heard from the direction of Molodohvardiisk, 6 miles (10 kilometers) north of Krasnodon.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu has said that since mid-August, NATO has seen multiple reports that Russia is transferring tanks and other heavy weapons to the separatists in Ukraine.
"Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces," she said in a statement Friday.
Previously, the West had accused Russia of cross-border shelling only. Ukrainian security services have also produced what they say is satellite evidence showing equipment and fighters crossing from Russia along country routes.
With more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the border in rebel hands, however, fighters brag that making the trip from Russia to Ukraine is simple.
One official crossing under rebel control is near the Ukrainian town of Izvaryne, 9 miles (15 kilometers) east of Krasnodon. That frontier post was used Friday by Russia to send hundreds of trucks into rebel-held territory as part of an aid convoy — a move that Ukraine denounced as an invasion.
About a month ago, Ukrainian forces were shelling the Izvaryne crossing regularly, but the way has been wide open for days.
Rebel fighters from a mobile combat group led by a commander who gave his nom de guerre as "Sniper" exchanged tales of their exploits last week as they waited for a delivery of emergency food to be unloaded at an orphanage for disabled children in Krasnodon. The men spoke openly in the presence of an AP reporter.
One fighter described the ease in crossing the Russian-controlled border with weapons visible.
"We go through the border in full uniform, totally decked out, with weapons sticking out of the window, five people in the car," he said. "A border guard comes up to us. He looks at us for a long time. Looks at the weapons, then back at us. And then he says: 'Open the trunk?'"
Everyone in the group laughed at the story.
Another fighter from Sniper's group joined in.
"So, I am going through the border and a guard jumps out of the bushes and shouts: 'Stop! Who goes there? Do you have any weapons?'" the man said.
When told yes, the guard then asked to see them — not because he wanted to confiscate them but because he was curious as to what kind of weapons they were, the man recounted.
"Turns out that they don't get service weapons!" he told his colleagues, to more laughter.
A third fighter described how his column was crossing the border where a guard was looking through binoculars. "We almost ran him over with the tank! He wasn't expecting that," he said.
The men in the group all spoke Russian with accents from many different parts of Russia. Separatist leaders initially tried to cast their fighting force as a purely local effort, but it has become evident that many Russians, including an unknown number from Chechnya, are serving in the rebel ranks.
The Russian fighters generally have better uniforms, powerful automatic rifles and bulletproof vests.
Those fighters staying in Krasnodon's main hotel freely admit they don't take orders from local Ukrainian rebel commanders. They describe themselves as "volunteers" from Russia, only to later deny it with a wink. They do not say specifically who commands them.
A militiaman from the city of Angarsk in Russia's Far East who went by the name of "Angara" said their fighting spirit remains strong.
"All our food and supplies come from Russia. Everything gets through," he said.
Angara added that civilians help by cooking them meals like borscht and bringing them water, while the fighters share their medicine with them.
"There are no hungry fighters here, thank God," he said.