The visit on Saturday was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's second audience with Pope Francis since 2020
Rome (AFP) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met Pope Francis Saturday during a trip to Rome, as Berlin unveiled a huge new weapons package ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Zelensky spent 40 minutes with the 86-year-old pontiff at the Vatican, after earlier meeting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has strongly backed Kyiv in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 invasion.
“I am very grateful to him for his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians,” Zelensky said on Telegram after his audience with the pope, the first since February 2020.
He said they had also discussed the fate of “tens of thousands of children” that Kyiv says were deported to Russia, as well as his plans for peace.
Francis has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine and has sought to play a mediating role, although his efforts have yet to yield any results and he has faced criticism for failing to put the blame on Russia for the war.
The Vatican, without mentioning Russia, said the pair discussed “the humanitarian and political situation in Ukraine caused by the ongoing war”, and the need for “human gestures towards the most fragile people”.
It was Zelensky’s first visit to EU and NATO member Italy since Russia invaded its neighbour and was due to be followed by a visit to Berlin Sunday.
Germany on Saturday announced a new weapons package worth 2.7 billion euros ($2.95 billion) for Ukraine, reportedly the biggest from Berlin since Russia’s invasion.
- ‘More proud, prosperous’ -
Zelensky had a 70-minute face-to-face with Meloni, who has pledged Italy’s full support for Kyiv despite a history of warm ties with Moscow in her country – and among her coalition partners.
In a joint press conference, Zelensky thanked Meloni “for helping to save lives” while detailing what he called fresh aggressions by Russia.
“I have not come to complain, I have come to talk about our cooperation and to thank you once again for helping us, for the sake of our country, because we want peace,” he said.
Italy has sent weapons and aid to Kyiv, although it has never disclosed exactly what it has delivered.
Italy has been a strong supporter of Ukraine
Meloni, who visited Zelensky in Kyiv in February, said Saturday: “I am convinced that Ukraine will win and be reborn stronger, more proud and more prosperous than before.”
- Russia ‘bound to lose’ -
The new package from Germany will include 30 additional Leopard-1 tanks, Marder armoured vehicles, air-defence systems and surveillance drones.
Both Ukraine and Russia have claimed making progress in Bakhmut
“We all hope for a rapid end to this terrible war by Russia against the Ukrainian people, but unfortunately this is not in sight,” Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said in a statement.
“This is why Germany will supply all the help that it can, for as long as necessary,” he said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, hailed the announcement, saying it indicated that Russia was “bound to lose and sit on the bench of historical shame”.
Western allies have delivered increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine. Britain this week announced it was sending Storm Shadow missiles, becoming the first country to send longer-range arms to Kyiv.
Germany's new weapons package for Ukraine will include 30 additional Leopard-1 tanks
Russia described it as “an extremely hostile step” and on Saturday accused Kyiv of using the British missiles to target civilian sites in eastern Ukraine, and wounding six children.
But EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Saturday urged other European nations to provide long-range weapons for Ukraine, while accelerating arms deliveries overall.
“The Russians are bombing from far away so the Ukrainians have to have the capacity to reach… the same distance, the same range,” Borrell said after a meeting with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Stockholm.
“But we have to speed up,” he said.
- Fighting intensifies -
On the front line, meanwhile, near the eastern flashpoint town of Bakhmut, both sides claimed to be making progress.
There was a heavy security presence for the Ukrainian leader's visit, which began with a meeting with President Sergio Mattarella
“Our soldiers are moving forward in some areas of the front, and the enemy is losing equipment and manpower,” commander of the Ukrainian ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi said on social media.
Russia said its forces were still pushing inside Bakhmut.
“In the Donetsk direction, assault detachments liberated a block in the northwestern part of the city of Artemovsk,” the defence ministry said, referring to Bakhmut by its Russian name.
The conflicting reports from the battlefront suggest an increase in fighting after months of relative stability, as expectations grow over Kyiv’s spring counteroffensive.
The question of when and where Ukraine might launch its high stakes battle to push Russian forces from occupied land has been the subject of steady speculation, although Zelensky insisted earlier this week that his army needed more time to prepare.
Elsewhere, votes were being tallied in Liverpool, England, for the much-loved Eurovision song contest, which Britain was staging on behalf of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian group called Kalush Orchestra won last year and with it, the hosting rights. Organisers this year ruled that the war made it impossible to hold the event in Ukraine.