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Pope urges Putin to commit 'great effort' to peace in Ukraine

Pope Francis has received Russian President Vladimir Putin for a private audience at the Vatican. The pontiff used the talks to call for a "sincere and great effort" towards ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

During their 50-minute meeting Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the pope agreed on the need to end fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Moscow rebels.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Francis stressed it was essential "to commit oneself in a sincere and great effort to bring" peace to Ukraine - through dialogue and the implementation of the ceasefire deal brokered by Germany and France in Minsk in February. The pontiff also told Putin the "grave humanitarian situation" in Ukraine had to be resolved, and that it was vital aid be allowed into conflict areas.

More than 6,400 people

have died in fighting in Ukraine

since the separatist insurgency broke out in April 2014. Western governments and Kyiv have

blamed Russia for fueling the war

by arming the rebels, although Moscow has repeatedly rejected the allegations.

Ahead of Putin's visit, the United States encouraged the Vatican to use the private audience to criticize Russia's role in the conflict.

"Maybe this is an opportunity where the holy father can privately raise concerns," Ken Hackett, the US ambassador to the Holy See, told reporters.

"We think they could say something more about concern of territorial integrity, those types of issues," he added. "It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents. And it does seem that there are Russian troops inside Ukraine. This is a very serious situation."

Putin on Italy tour

The pope steered clear of blaming Russia for the violence in Ukraine, although he has previously called for all sides to respect the ceasefire.

Wednesday's meeting was Putin's second at the Vatican since Francis became pope in 2013.

Earlier in the day,

Putin held talks in Milan

with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who appealed to the Russian president for help in ending the conflict in Libya that has sent increasing numbers of refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.

Renzi didn't comdemn Russia's alleged involvement in Ukraine, but said there should be a full implementation of the Minsk peace accord.

nm/bk (Reuters, AP)

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