The Pentagon is sending a dozen fighter planes and nearly 200 personnel to Bulgaria for a training exercise as violence in Ukraine continues to claim civilian lives.
The 493rd Fighter Squadron out of Lakenheath, England, will be going to Bulgaria for training exercises starting Sept. 1. The unit will deploy with 12 F-15 Eagles and 180 personnel, Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, dozens of civilians were killed Monday when separatist rebels shelled a convoy of refugees trying to flee war-torn eastern Ukraine, a top Ukrainian official said.
The barrage took place Monday morning between the towns of Khryashchuvate and Novosvitlivka, which lie on the main road leading to Russia from the besieged rebel-held city of Luhansk, according to Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council.
"Many people were killed, among them women and children," Lysenko said. "We are not able to count the death toll at this point."
Pentagon's officials stressed that the 493rd's deployment was planned before Ukraine crisis but also "reflects our steadfast commitment to regional security" in Europe, Warren said.
Fighting across eastern Ukraine has forced nearly 344,000 people to flee their homes, according to U.N. figures released Friday. The U.N. says about 155,800 have left for other places inside Ukraine while 188,000 more have crossed into Russia.
The flow of refugees only seems to be growing. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said more than 22,000 people fled the main rebel-held city of Donetsk last week compared to 6,200 the week before.
City officials have released even higher numbers. Donetsk has seen at least 300,000 of its pre-war population of 1 million leave their homes, while Luhansk has only 250,000 of its 420,000 people left, local authorities said.
Yet Donetsk rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko later told reporters that no such attack had taken place. His deputy, Andrei Purgin, said he had no information about any attack but insisted it was not by his forces.
Purgin said the road cited by the Ukrainian government for Monday's alleged attack had been targeted previously by government forces. That same road to Luhansk would likely be the one taken by a disputed Russian aid convoy if Ukraine allows it into the country.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is expected to take responsibility for the Russian aid convoy when it enters Ukraine, has demanded security guarantees from all sides, including the rebels, for the mission into eastern Ukraine. As of Monday, there was no indication that the guarantees had been given.
The humanitarian aid convoy of over 200 trucks from Russia has been watched with suspicion by Ukraine and the West, especially since Ukrainian forces have been winning back significant territory from the rebels in the last few weeks. They suggest it could be used by Russia to send help to the separatists — or to delay the government's advances with a timely cease-fire.
Pentagon officials said Monday that "we continue to see Russian military equipment flow from Russian into Ukraine,” Warren said, adding that the equipment includes tanks, artillery, rocket launchers and anti-air systems.
Russia's foreign minister said he expects the Russian aid mission to enter Ukraine in the near future.
-- Associated Press contributed to this report.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org