ROME -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, later saying he sought support for Ukraine's peace plan from the pontiff, who in the past has offered to try to help end the full-scale war launched by Russia a year ago.
Zelenskyy held his hand over his heart and said it was a "great honor" to meet with 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.
In a tweet after the 40-minute audience, Zelenskyy expressed gratitude to Francis for "his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians." He said he spoke with the pontiff "about the tens of thousands of deported [Ukrainian] children. We must make every effort to return them home."
Zelenskyy also said he asked the pope to condemn Russian "crimes in Ukraine" because "there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor."
Last month, Ukraine's prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, asked the pope to help get Ukrainian children returned from Russia, but the Vatican's statement Saturday made no mention of the request.
Instead, the Vatican said the two men spoke about Ukraine's "humanitarian and political situation provoked by the ongoing war."
"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, a reference to the Russian invasion that began Feb. 24, 2022.
The meeting came as Russia's defense ministry said Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles delivered to Ukraine by the United Kingdom this week damaged unspecified civilian enterprises in Luhansk province in Ukraine's far east. 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 Saturday in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine, state news agency Tass and a Telegram channel close to the Russian defense 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 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.
Earlier in the day, Zelenskyy received from Italian officials pledges of 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," Premier Giorgia Meloni said after a meeting with Zelenskyy that 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 supports military aid for Ukraine, said Italy would back the country "360 degrees for all the time necessary and beyond."
Since the war began, Italy has contributed about $1.1 billion in military and financial aid, as well as humanitarian assistance.
Zelenskyy is believed to be heading to Berlin next for what would be his first visit to Germany since the war began. The exact schedule was not publicly announced because of security concerns.
At the end of April, Francis told reporters the Vatican was involved in a behind-the-scenes peace mission but gave no details. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have confirmed such an initiative.
The pope 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.
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.
In other developments, Russian shelling Saturday killed two civilians, including a 15-year-old girl, and wounded 10 more in Kostyantynivka, a city less than 18 miles west of Bakhmut, the regional prosecutor's office said.
Information for this article was contributed by Frank Jordans, Joanna Kozlowska, Nicole Winfield and Gianfranco Stara of The Associated Press.