Ukraine PM invites pope to visit, seeks help repatriating children deported by Russia

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Ukraine’s prime minister said on Thursday he had invited Pope Francis to visit Ukraine and asked for help in repatriating thousands of children taken to Russia or Russian-occupied land since Moscow’s invasion.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told a news conference in Rome that he had held talks at the Vatican and discussed Kyiv’s peace formula to end Russia’s 14-month-old war in Ukraine.

“I asked his holiness for help in returning home Ukrainian children who are being held, arrested, deported to Russia in a criminal way,” he said.

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Kyiv estimates nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since Moscow invaded in February last year, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.

Moscow, which controls large parts of Ukraine’s east and south, denies abducting children and says they have been transported away for their own safety.

“We discussed the (Ukrainian) peace formula, and a potential path and assistance from his holiness and the Vatican to achieve all the steps of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s peace formula,” Shmyhal said.

Pope Francis, 86, has said previously that he wants to visit Kyiv but also Moscow on a peace mission.

Tens of thousands have been killed, millions uprooted and whole cities have been flattened during the war in Ukraine.

Russia has been conducting a major offensive in the east of Ukraine for months, but has failed to make major territorial advances. Ukraine plans to launch a counteroffensive in the coming weeks or months. Kyiv wants all its territory back.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, spoke by phone with Zelenskyy on Wednesday. Shmyhal told reporters the phone call had been very productive and could prove a very positive beginning for future relations.

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