ROME (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Rome ahead of talks on Saturday with Pope Francis at the Vatican, received assurances from Italian leaders of continued military and other aid as his country fights to liberate itself from Russia's military invasion launched last year.
Francis recently said that the Vatican has launched a behind-the-scenes initiative to try to end the war launched last year by Russia.
In a tweet, sent shortly after his arrival in the Italian capital late Saturday morning, Zelenskyy cited his schedule of meetings with Francis, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni. "An important visit for approaching victory of Ukraine!" Zelenskyy tweeted.
When Zelenskyy 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.
Zelenskyy began his official meetings by calling on 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.
At his next stop, the premier's office, Meloni and Zelenskyy embraced in the palace courtyard, before beginning their closed-door talks.
Zelenskyy is believed to be heading to Berlin next. Zelenskyy'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 Zelenskyy in Kyiv, 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, 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.
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 2.7 billion euros ($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 Zelenskyy 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.
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