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In Rome, Ukraine’s Zelensky meets with Italian premier before talks with pope

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ROME — 

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky arrived in Rome on Saturday for talks with Italian officials and Pope Francis, who has said the Vatican has launched a behind-the-scenes initiative to try to end the war launched last year by Russia.

“Today in Rome,″ Zelensky tweeted. ”I’m meeting with President of Italy Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister of Italy @GiorgiaMeloni and the Pope @Pontifex. An important visit for approaching victory of Ukraine! ”

When Zelensky arrived at a military airfield at Rome’s Ciampino airport, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani was on hand to greet him. Tajani told reporters that Italy will continue to support Ukraine “360 degrees” and press for a just peace, one that safeguards Ukraine’s independence.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni staunchly backs military and other aid for Ukraine.

But while her far-right Brothers of Italy party fiercely champions the principle of national sovereignty, Meloni has had to contend with leaders of two coalition partners who have openly professed for years 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.

Zelensky began his official meetings by calling on Mattarella, who is head of state, at the presidential Quirinale Palace. Rain let up just in time about noon for the two to view an honor guard in the palace courtyard atop the Quirinal Hill, and Zelensky stood with his hand over his heart as an Italian military band played Ukraine’s anthem.

“We are fully at your side,’’ Mattarella told Zelenskyy at the start of their meeting.

The Ukrainian leader then headed to the premier’s office at Chigi Palace. Meloni and Zelensky embraced in the palace courtyard before the two headed to their closed-door talks.

En route to his appointments, Zelensky’s motorcade passed by cheering Ukrainians who had waited in the rain to welcome him during his visit to the Italian capital, expected to last several hours. Near the presidential palace was Mariya Hrytskevych, a Ukrainian citizen living in Italy, who noted that Zelensky is “traveling a lot for our good — to fight and to find more help, because we need help.”

Zelensky is believed to be heading to Berlin next.

Zelensky’s exact schedule hadn’t been publicly announced because of security concerns, and the Vatican only confirmed a papal meeting shortly before the Ukrainian president’s plane touched down.

Italian state radio reported that as part of protective measures, a no-fly zone was ordered for Rome skies and police sharpshooters were strategically placed on high buildings.

Meloni met with Zelensky in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, shortly before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.

Francis, who is eager for peace, last met with the Ukrainian leader in 2020.

The pontiff makes frequent impassioned pleas on behalf of Ukraine’s “martyred” people, in his words.

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 if such a visit could be coupled with one to Moscow, if a papal pilgrimage could further the cause of peace.

Last month, Ukraine’s prime minister 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.

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

The announcement Saturday came as preparations were underway in Berlin for a possible first visit to Germany by Zelensky since Russia invaded his country last year.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Berlin wants 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.

— 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.

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