GENEVA (Reuters) - A first planeload of medical supplies for COVID-19 patients and other relief goods has arrived in Ukraine to help people enduring a six-year conflict in the country's east, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.
Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists emerged in 2014, reported its first coronavirus infection on Tuesday and the ICRC said several more cases had been confirmed there since.
Tension between the rebels and Ukrainian forces remains high and fighting flared in February despite peace talks in December.
"Neutrality helps us build relationships with all parties to the conflict, which in turn trust us, or do not see us as being partial. We can then access all those in need, wherever they are. In Ukraine, that is what we’ve being doing for years on both sides of the frontline,” ICRC spokesman Didier Revol said.
The ICRC expected to deliver gloves, masks and other protective devices at the end of April or early May, he added.
The initial 14 metric tonnes of supplies will go to hospitals and detention centres and serve both sides of the front line in the region, known as the Donbass, where the situation could become "disastrous" given the state of the health system, the ICRC said.
"This material will help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Donbass, a region where people are struggling with the threat of the COVID-19 while already suffering from 6 years of conflict," the humanitarian agency said.
The aircraft, sent to Geneva by Ukrainian authorities, was loaded with the supplies on Wednesday night, following what Revol said was an agreement between Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and ICRC President Peter Maurer.
It was a rare plane to take off from Geneva's Cointrin airport where flights have been grounded during the pandemic.
"It is very important that this kind of medical goods, humanitarian relief goods can still travel across borders, because it is urgently needed in these places," Karl Reisacher, deputy head of ICRC air operations, said in Geneva.
The medical cargo, including 1 tonne of goods from the World Health Organization (WHO), arrived in Kiev's Boryspil airport, Revol said.
Items such as disinfectant fluids, syringes or IV fluids can be used in the fight against COVID as well as supporting other procedures such as war surgery, he said.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014, and another Ukrainian solder was killed and four others were injured in the flareup on Feb. 18, the country's military said. Both sides blamed the other for the fighting.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Cecile Mantovani and Denis Balibouse; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alison Williams)