Putin, Poroshenko held two rounds of secret phone talks: Kiev

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office said Thursday that he and Russian leader Vladimir Putin held two secret and fruitless phone talks about the war in the east of the ex-Soviet state over the past month.

Poroshenko's press office said the rare contacts between the foes came during a severe flare-up in fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists last month.

The upsurge in violence killed 35 people in early February and centred around the government-held town of Avdiivka.

"Because these talks were fruitless, there was no separate statement made about them," the Ukrainian presidency said.

The Kremlin said it could confirm that "several" conversations had taken place, but it insisted there was no direct discussion on establishing a ceasefire around Avdiivka.

"There was an exchange of views and an expression of mutual concern about the escalating tensions," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Direct conversations between Putin and Poroshenko have become increasingly rare as the conflict that has cost some 10,000 lives has dragged on for nearly three years.

They usually occur in the presence of the leaders of Germany of France -- co-sponsors of a stalled February 2015 peace deal that has helped contain some of the fighting but not end the war.

It remained unclear who initiated the calls.

But the publisher and editor of Moscow's independent Nezavisimaya Gazeta publication which first broke the news last month said Poroshenko was the one who called Putin on at least one occasion and that the talk lasted for 90 minutes.

Konsantin Remchukov said he met "several people" after last month's Munich Security Conference who told him that Poroshenko had personally asked for his talks with Putin to remain private.

Remchukov said the conversation touched not only on security issues but also business matters.

It was not immediately clear why Kiev has disclosed them now.

Ukraine said the leaders of France and Germany helped to coordinate the conversations in advance.

The conflict -- and Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 -- have pushed ties between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Kiev on Thursday said three of its soldiers were killed and another nine wounded across various parts of the industrial war zone since Tuesday.

Ukraine is nervously waiting and watching to see if new US President Donald Trump will alter Washington's staunch support for Kiev in a bid to improve ties with Putin.

Russia denies backing or plotting the fighting to keep the pro-Western leadership in Ukraine under its thumb.

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