The deadliest flare-up in fighting in eastern Ukraine since December stretched into a third day as President Petro Poroshenko broke off a visit to Germany.

The military's press service said that Russian-backed insurgents pounded the town of Avdiivka, 20km from the conflict zone's biggest city, Donetsk, using rockets and artillery. Rebels blamed the army for the shelling. Before Poroshenko left Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel used a joint news conference to voice concern at the security situation.

Almost three years after it broke out, there's no end in sight for the conflict in Ukraine's easternmost regions, which has killed more than 9600 people and poisoned ties between Russia and the West.

A 2015 peace plan brokered in Minsk, Belarus, by Germany, Russia and France has failed to bring about a resolution. Despite the lack of progress, US President Donald Trump has said he may consider relaxing US sanctions against Russia over the conflict. European Union measures will stay in place until at least mid-2017.

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The latest violence is probably unconnected to talk of easing sanctions, according to Volodymyr Fesenko at the Penta research institute in Kiev. "If the rebels go on a massive offensive with Russian support, then you can forget about scrapping sanctions against Russia," he said, noting that the fighting may be an attempt to spoil Poroshenko's talks with Merkel.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blamed the surge in fighting on the "aggressive actions" of Ukraine's military, which he accused of trying to take territory from separatists in the Donetsk region. Troops crossed the line of contact separating the two sides, showing Ukraine is unwilling to adhere to the peace deal, he told reporters on a conference call.

Alexei Pushkov, a member of Russia's upper house of Parliament, also blamed Ukraine for the fighting, saying the Government there needs to raise tensions "at all costs" as speculation over the fate of the US sanctions persists.

- Bloomberg