Zelensky met Pope Francis in the Vatican

ROME – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held a private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, later saying he had sought support for his peace plan from the pontiff, who has previously offered to try to help end a full-scale war started by Russia. a year ago.

Zelensky held his hand over his heart and said that it was a “great honor” to meet the Pope. Francis, using a cane for a knee problem, came to greet the Ukrainian president before taking him to the papal studio near the Vatican’s auditorium.

In a tweet after the 40-minute audience, Zelensky thanked Francis “for his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians.” He said he spoke with the pontiff about “tens of thousands of deported (Ukrainian) children. We must make every effort to bring them back home.”

Last month, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmihal asked the Pope to help return the children from Russia to Ukraine. But the Vatican’s statement on Saturday made no mention of the request.

Instead, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine’s “humanitarian and political situation, provoked by the ongoing war.”

“The Pope has assured his constant prayer, evidenced by his many public appeals and appeals to the Lord for peace since February of last year,” the Vatican said, referring to the Russian invasion that began on February 24. in 2022

“Both agreed on the need to continue humanitarian efforts,” the Holy See said in a statement.

The meeting came as Russia’s Defense Ministry said Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles delivered to Ukraine by the United Kingdom this week had damaged unspecified civilian businesses in Ukraine’s far-eastern Lugansk province. Luhansk authorities said separately that another rocket hit the regional capital, injuring an elderly woman.

Two Russian Mi-8 helicopters and a Su-34 fighter-bomber crashed on Saturday in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine, the Tass state news agency and the Telegram channel close to the Russian Defense Ministry reported. The cause of the crashes was not immediately clear, but concerns are growing in Bryansk over cross-border attacks by Ukraine.

Some Ukrainian units are continuing to advance near Bakhmut, Ukraine’s ground forces commander said Saturday, just a day after Ukrainian commanders said their troops had retaken territory in the scene of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. “Our soldiers are moving forward in some parts of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” Alexander Sirsky said on Telegram.

Zelensky also said that he asked the Pope to condemn Russian “crimes in Ukraine” because “there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”

“I also spoke about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace,” Zelensky said. Later, in an interview with Italian state television, the Ukrainian leader said that the Pope “knows my position. The war is in Ukraine, that’s why it should be Ukraine’s plan to establish peace.

Zelensky’s 10-point plan would create a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes. It will also create a Euro-Atlantic security architecture with safeguards for Ukraine, restore Ukraine’s damaged energy infrastructure and ensure security around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporozhye.

Earlier, Zelensky received promises of indefinite military and financial support from Italian officials, as well as stronger support for Ukraine’s cherished goal of joining the European Union.

“The message is clear and simple,” Prime Minister Georgia Maloney said after meeting with Zelenskiy for more than an hour. “The future of Ukraine is the future of peace and freedom. And that is the future of Europe, the future of peace and freedom, for which there are no other possible solutions.”

Maloney also renewed his pledge to protect Ukraine’s EU ambitions, saying Ukraine was pushing ahead with necessary reforms despite the war.

The prime minister, who strongly supports military aid to Ukraine, said Italy would support the country “360 degrees at all times and beyond”.

Zelensky started his official meetings by addressing the Italian President Sergio Mattarella. “We’re totally on your side,” Mattarella told Zelensky as he greeted him. Later, sources in the presidential palace said that Mattarella assured his guest that Italy would continue to provide military and financial support to Ukraine, as well as through reconstruction and humanitarian aid.

Since the start of the war, Italy has provided nearly 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian aid.

Zelensky is expected to travel to Berlin, his first visit to Germany since the start of the war. Due to security concerns, the exact schedule has not been publicly announced.

In late April, Francis told reporters that the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scenes peace mission, but did not provide details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine approved such an initiative.

He said he would like to go to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, if such a visit were to be combined with a visit to Moscow, hoping that the papal pilgrimage could contribute to the cause of peace.

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

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that Berlin wants to show with the latest package of weapons that “Germany is serious about its support” to Ukraine.

“Germany will provide all assistance as long as it is needed,” he said.

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