Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican, later saying he sought support for his peace plan from the pontiff, who in the past has offered to try to help end the war launched by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
Mr Zelensky held his hand over his heart and said it was a “great honour” to meet the pope.
Francis, using a cane for his knee problem, came to greet the Ukrainian president before ushering him into a papal studio near the Vatican’s audience hall.
“Thank you for your visit,” Francis said, as their 40-minute-long meeting began.
He said he spoke to the pontiff “about the tens of thousands of deported (Ukrainian) children. We must make every effort to return them home”.
Last month, Ukraine’s prime minister Denys Shmyhal asked the pope to help get the children returned from Russia to Ukraine.
But the Vatican’s written statement after Saturday’s talks made no mention of the request for help for the children.
Instead, 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, in a reference to the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 2022 by Russia’s military.
“Both agreed on the need to continue humanitarian efforts” to help the population, the Holy See’s statement added.
“The pope underlined in particular the urgent need for ‘humanitarian gestures’ toward the most fragile persons, innocent victims of the conflict,” the statement said.
Luhansk authorities separately said another missile strike hit the regional capital, wounding an elderly woman.
Two Russian Mi-8 helicopters and an Su-34 fighter-bomber crashed on Saturday in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine, state news agency Tass and a Telegram channel close to the Russian Defence Ministry reported.
The causes of the crashes were not immediately disclosed, but concern in Bryansk is growing about cross-border attacks from Ukraine.
Some Ukrainian units continue to push forward near Bakhmut, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces said on Saturday, just a day after Ukrainian commanders said their troops recaptured territory at the scene of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle.
“Our soldiers are moving forward in some sectors of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Telegram.
Mr 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”.
And he said he asked Francis to come aboard Ukraine’s peace plan.
“I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace,” Mr Zelensky said.
Later, in an interview on Italian state TV, the Ukrainian leader said the pope “knows my position. The war is in Ukraine, that is why it has to be Ukraine’s plan” to bring peace.
Mr Zelensky’s 10-point plan would establish a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes.
It would also create a European-Atlantic security architecture with guarantees for Ukraine, restore Ukraine’s damaged power infrastructure and ensure safety around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia.
Earlier in the day, Mr Zelensky received from Italian officials 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,” Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said, flanked by Mr Zelensky 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.”
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, Ms 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 Mr Putin, while another government ally, League leader Matteo Salvini, has questioned the value of economic sanctions against Russia.
Mr Zelensky began his official meetings by calling on Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the presidential Quirinale Palace.
Later, after their meeting, presidential palace sources said Mr 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 one billion euros (£875 million) in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.
Mr Zelensky is believed to be heading to Berlin next for what would be his first visit to Germany since the war began.
The exact schedule had not 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 Mr Zelensky 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-scenes peace mission but gave no details.
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 the hopes that 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 (£2.3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.
Defence 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.
Russian shelling on Saturday killed two civilians, including a 15-year-old girl, and wounded 10 more in Kostyantynivka, a city less than 30 kilometres (18 miles) west of Bakhmut, the regional prosecutor’s office said.