Pope meets Zelenskyy as Ukraine war enters dangerous territory

This image made available by Vatican News shows Pope Francis meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a private audience at The Vatican, Saturday, May 13, 2023. Francis recently said that the Vatican has launched a behind-the-scenes initiative to try to end the war launched last year by Russia. (Vatican News via AP)
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ROME (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, saying it was a great honor to meet with the pontiff, who has previously offered to do what he can to try to end the war launched by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

Zelenskyy held his hand of his heart as the pope, using a cane, came to greet him before ushering the Ukrainian into a papal studio near the Vatican’s audience call. “Thank you for your visit,″ Francis said, as their 40-minute-long meeting began.

In a written statement, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine’s “humanitarian and political situation provoked by the war going on.″

“The pope assured his constant prayer, paid witness to by his many public appeals and by his continued invoking of the Lord for peace, since February of last year,″ the Vatican said, a reference to the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, by Russia’s military.

“Both agreed on the need to continue humanitarian efforts” to help the population. “The pope underlined in particular the urgent need for ‘humanitarian gestures’ toward the most fragile persons, innocent victims of the conflict,” the statement said.

Last month, Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, met with Francis at the Vatican and said he asked the pontiff to help Ukraine get back children illegally taken to Russia during the invasion.

Saturday’s communique from the Vatican made no mention of that, and there were no immediate details from Zelenskyy’s side about his meeting with the pontiff.

Ahead of Zelenskyy’s arrival in late afternoon, police moved tourists to one side of St. Peter’s Square so the Ukrainian president’s motorcade could speed across the vast cobblestone space.

Earlier in the day, Zelenskyy met with Italian officials after his morning flight to Rome. He received pledges of both open-ended military and financial support as well as stronger backing for Ukraine’s cherished aim to join the European Union.

“The message is clear and simple,” Meloni said, flanked by Zelenskyy as the two briefed reporters after their meeting at her office, which lasted more than an hour. “The future of Ukraine is a future of peace and freedom. And it’s the future of Europe, a future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions.″

Meloni, who had met with Zelenskyy in Ukraine in February, just ahead of the anniversary of the invasion, renewed her pledge to champion Ukraine’s EU ambitions, saying Ukraine was moving ahead with required reforms despite the war.

The premier, who staunchly backs military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country “360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond.”

But while her far-right Brothers of Italy party champions the principle of national sovereignty, Meloni has had to contend with leaders of two coalition partners who for years have openly professed their admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Coalition ally Silvio Berlusconi, a former premier, has boasted of his friendship with Putin, while another government ally, League leader Matteo Salvini, has questioned the value of economic sanctions against Russia.

Zelenskyy began his official meetings by calling on Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the presidential Quirinale Palace.

“We are fully at your side,″ Mattarella told Zelenskyy as he welcomed him. Later, after their meeting, presidential palace sources said Mattarella assured his guest that Italy would continue supporting Ukraine militarily and financially, as well as with reconstruction and humanitarian aid, in both the short and long term.

Since the war began, Italy has furnished about 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.

Zelenskyy is believed to be heading to Berlin next for what would be his first visit to Germany since the war began. The exact schedule hadn’t been publicly announced because of security concerns. Italian state radio reported that as part of protective measures, a no-fly zone was ordered for the skies over Rome and police sharpshooters were strategically placed on high buildings.

Francis had previously met with Zelenskyy in 2020. At the end of April, flying back to Rome from a trip to Hungary, Francis told reporters on the plane that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scene peace mission but gave no details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has confirmed such an initiative.

He has said he would like to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, in hopes a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.

The German government, meanwhile, said it was providing Ukraine with additional military aid worth more than 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Berlin wanted to show with the latest package of arms “that Germany is serious in its support” for Ukraine.

“Germany will provide all the help it can, as long as it takes,” he said.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

— Some Ukrainian units continue to push forward near Bakhmut, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces said Saturday, just a day after Ukrainian commanders said their troops recaptured territory at the scene of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. “The defensive operation in the Bakhmut area continues. Our soldiers are moving forward in some sectors of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” Oleksandr Syrskyi wrote in a Telegram update.

— Russian shelling on Saturday wounded at least seven civilians in Ukraine’s south and northeast, regional Ukrainian officials said. Two women, a man and a teenage boy suffered wounds as Russian forces shelled the village of Khatnie, in the northeastern Kharkiv region, the local prosecutor’s office said.

— Shelling also hit the center of Huliaipole, a town in the southern Zaporizhzhia province, and wounded a civilian, presidential aide Andriy Yermak said. Two others civilians were hurt in the village of Chornobaivka, in the neighboring Kherson region, another official said.

— A “massive” Russian barrage overnight damaged an energy facility in Ukraine’s western Khmelnytskyi region, the Ukrainian energy ministry said Saturday morning. It added that power supply in the region wasn’t affected. The mayor of the regional capital said that 11 civilians were wounded or injured overnight as a result of a Russian missile strike, He added that “hundreds” of residential buildings in the city were also damaged in the strike.

— Russian forces on Friday and overnight resumed their shelling of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, killing a civilian, local Gov. Oleh Syniehubov reported on Telegram on Saturday. Four civilians were killed over the same period in Ukraine’s front-line Donetsk province in the east, its Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said Saturday.

— Russian forces overnight launched at least 21 Iranian-made Shahed drones at Ukrainian territory, 17 of which were shot down, Ukraine’s air force said Saturday. One of the drones hit unspecified “infrastructure facilities” in the western Khmelnytskyi region, the update said in a likely reference to the energy facility in the province that was damaged in the nightly strike, according to Ukraine’s energy ministry.

— Russian shelling overnight wounded three civilians in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, the mayor said Saturday. One person was hospitalized, while the two others were treated on the spot. Multiple fires were reported within the city.

— Russian shelling on Saturday killed two civilians and wounded 10 more in Kostyantynivka, a city less than 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Bakhmut, the regional prosecutor’s office reported in a Telegram post. According to the update, posted on the agency’s official channel, a 15-year-old girl was among those killed, while two more teenagers suffered wounds. The post featured a photo of an almost completely collapsed one-storey house, another, taller residential building with its doors and windows blown out, and another of a building with a destroyed roof and gaping holes in its facade.

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