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Pope makes surprise visit to Italian earthquake towns

Pope Francis has visited the Italian mountain communities devastated in August's earthquake. The surprise trip saw silent prayers as well as selfies with some of the survivors.

The 79-year-old pontiff's trip to the shattered town of Amatrice and the devastated nearby hamlets of Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto was only announced to the media after he had arrived. Francis said that he wanted to keep the visit to the area where almost 300 people died low-key.

The Argentine pontiff, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, stood briefly in silent prayer in the closed-off "red zone" of Amatrice.

He later repeated the gesture outside the ruins of the St Francesco church in Accumoli, having spent two hours over lunch chatting with 60 pensioners in a retirement home where some of the elderly victims of the quake are now housed.

"I did not come earlier so as not to create any problems, knowing the state you were in," he told survivors. "I did not want to cause any bother. But from the outset I felt I had to come to you, simply to tell you that I am with you, nothing more, and that I am praying for you."

After blessing the crowd in Amatrice and saying a brief Ave Maria prayer, Francis issued a message of hope for the area. "We go forward, there is always a future," he said on what was the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, the venerated Catholic figure in whose honor Francis selected his papal name.

The government has estimated the cost of the damage done to the area hit by the quake at 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion) and has vowed to rebuild the worst-affected communities where they were, rather than relocating any.

The earthquake, which was felt in Rome, 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the epicenter near Amatrice, killed 297 people and injured hundreds more.

Around two-thirds of the deaths occurred in Amatrice, a beauty spot and popular tourist destination packed with holiday-makers when the quake struck at the height of the summer season

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Fear of the next earthquake

jbh/msh (AFP, dpa)

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