Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived at the Vatican on Saturday for what was expected to be a private audience with Pope Francis, 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 Rome, on his first visit to EU and NATO member Italy since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

He was due to travel on Sunday to Berlin, a German government source said, the day after Berlin announced a new weapons package worth 2.7 billion euros ($2.95 billion) for Ukraine.

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 in Rome for Zelensky’s visit, which began with a formal welcome by President Sergio Mattarella, followed by a 70-minute face-to-face with Meloni.

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Despite a history of warm ties with Moscow, including within Meloni’s hard-right coalition government, Italy has been a strong supporter of Kyiv, sending weapons and aid and backing sanctions against Russia.

In a statement, Zelensky “expressed gratitude for Italy’s consistent position in supporting Ukraine”.

He was later due to meet Pope Francis, who has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine and prays for the victims of the war almost every week.

- All the help it can -

The new package from Germany, which will include 30 additional Leopard-1 tanks, Marder armoured vehicles, air-defence systems and surveillance drones, is reportedly Berlin’s largest since Russia’s invasion.

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“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 Zelenksy, hailed the announcement, saying it indicated that Russia was “bound to lose and sit on the bench of historical shame.”

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Western allies have delivered increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine, and Britain this week announced it would send Storm Shadow missiles, becoming the first country to send longer-range arms to Kyiv.

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,” he said after a meeting with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Stockholm.

He welcomed Germany’s announcement and said other EU states should follow, adding: “We have to speed up.”

- Fighting intensifies -

A senior Ukrainian military commander said Saturday that Kyiv’s forces were advancing against Russian forces near Bakhmut.

“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.

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Russia meanwhile 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.

- Suffering and death -

Meloni visited Kyiv in February to emphasise her country’s support and met with Zelensky, and also hosted Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal last month.

During an address to ambassadors earlier Saturday, Pope Francis again lamented the conflict 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.

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Speaking to reporters a few days later while flying home from a trip to Hungary, Francis confirmed he wanted to help, and saying that “a mission is underway” without providing more details.

Both Kyiv and Moscow said they knew nothing about such a mission.

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