Zelensky to meet Pope as Germany unveils more arms for Ukraine
ROME, Italy - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Rome Saturday to meet with Pope Francis and Italian leaders, as Germany unveiled a new weapons package ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.
"An important visit for approaching victory of Ukraine!" Zelensky tweeted shortly after arriving in the EU and NATO member Italy on his first visit since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Despite a history of warm ties with Moscow, including within the hard-right coalition government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy has been a strong supporter of Kyiv, sending weapons and aid and backing sanctions against Russia.
Pope Francis, who last hosted Zelensky at the Vatican in February 2020, has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine and prays for the victims of the war almost every week.
Security forces locked down large areas of Rome ahead of Zelensky's visit, which will include an audience with the pope at the Vatican and meetings with premier Meloni and with Italian President Sergia Mattarella, who holds a largely ceremonial post.
There is widespread speculation that Zelensky's trip to Rome could be followed by a visit to Berlin, which on Saturday announced a huge new weapons package for Ukraine.
Germany's defence ministry said it was preparing a package worth 2.7 billion euros ($2.95 billion), reportedly Berlin's largest since Russia invaded its neighbour.
"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.
The package will include 30 additional Leopard-1 tanks, Marder armoured vehicles, air-defence systems and surveillance drones, the ministry said.
Der Spiegel magazine said it would be Germany's largest package to Kyiv since the outbreak of the war.
Western allies have delivered to Ukraine increasingly powerful weapons, though not yet the advanced fighter jets that Zelensky has requested.
The UK government this week announced it would send Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine, becoming the first country to provide longer-range weapons to Kyiv, in what Russia called "an extremely hostile step".
On the ground, conflicting reports from the frontline eastern city of Bakhmut suggest an increase in fighting in Ukraine 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, even as Zelensky insisted earlier this week that his army needed more time to prepare.
Meloni, who took office last October after her far-right Brothers of Italy party won September elections, visited Kyiv in February to emphasise her country's support, where she met with Zelensky.
She also hosted Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Rome last month, on the occasion of a conference on how Italian businesses could help rebuild the war-torn country.
During an address to various ambassadors to the Holy See earlier Saturday, Pope Francis again referred to the war in Ukraine that he said "has brought suffering and unspeakable deaths".
During a papal audience in Rome last month, Shmyhal invited the 86-year-old pontiff to Ukraine and asked for his help in returning children forcibly taken to Russia.
Speaking to reporters a few days later while flying home from a trip to Hungary, Francis confirmed he wanted to help, saying that "a mission is underway" without providing more details.
Both Kyiv and Moscow said they knew nothing about such a mission. - AFP