Putin to meet Pope Francis, Italian leaders on one-day visit to Rome

Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with Pope Francis during a one-day visit to Rome. (Vatican Media via Reuters)
Updated 04 July 2019

Putin to meet Pope Francis, Italian leaders on one-day visit to Rome

  • ‘We have a special relationship, tested by time, with Italy’

ROME: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Rome Thursday for a lightning visit including talks with the pope and Italy’s populist government, which has called for an easing of sanctions despite Moscow’s ongoing crisis with the West.

Rome’s historic center is on security lockdown for the visit with 50 streets blocked to traffic and Italian media reporting that mobile phone signals could be scrambled.

Putin will be driven around in his six-meter-long armored limo by a chauffeur who has been practicing negotiating his way around the Eternal City’s narrow streets. His talks with Italian leaders should be easier.

Far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has often expressed admiration for Putin, and his coalition government advocates reviewing EU sanctions against Russia.

On the eve of the visit, Putin praised Salvini and his Lega party for having a “welcoming attitude” to Russia.

“They are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the US and the EU,” Putin said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.

The US and EU have progressively imposed sanctions on Russia since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Salvini has previously visited Moscow and been pictured in pro-Putin T-shirts.

When his party won most Italian votes in May’s European elections, Salvini posted a photo of himself with a picture of Putin in the background.

“Men like him (Putin) who act in the interest of their own citizens, there should be dozens in this country,” Salvini said last year.

The Kremlin says Putin wants to discuss Russia-EU relations, the situation in Syria, Ukraine and Libya and Iran’s nuclear program.

An EU summit last month extended economic sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy, including its crucial oil and gas industry, until the end of 2019.

Italy has not vetoed the sanctions but the EU front appears less united thanks to Rome’s pro-Russian overtures.

Before talks with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella, Putin will have his third meeting with Pope Francis.

Their last encounter was in 2015 when the pope urged all parties to the conflict in Ukraine to make a “sincere effort” for peace.

The meeting lasted an unusual 50 minutes. Only audiences with former US President Barack Obama and French President Emmanuel Macron have been longer.

Francis first met Putin in 2013, as the Roman Catholic Church sought to improve ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Only in 2009 did the Vatican and Moscow re-establish full diplomatic ties which had been severed during Soviet times.

Relations have improved since the coming to power in the same year of Patriarch Kirill, who headed up the Russian Orthodox Church’s diplomatic arm for years.

The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently accused the Catholic Church of proselytizing in Russia, an Orthodox Christian country of 144 million.

The pope in 2016 held a historic meeting with Kirill in Cuba, the first encounter between the heads of the two largest Christian churches since Christianity split into Western and Eastern branches in the 11th Century — an event known as “The Great Schism.”

Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said on Wednesday that “for the time being a possible invitation for the pope to visit Russia is not on the agenda.”

The pope and Putin will discuss “preserving Christian holy sites in Syria,” the Kremlin said.

Salvini and fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio will attend a dinner for Putin in the evening, after which the Russian president will meet his old friend and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, known for his sex scandals and “bunga bunga” parties.

“We are bound by a friendship stretching back many years,” Putin said in the Corriere interview, hailing “a politician of global stature.”


Somalia struggles after worst flooding in recent history

Updated 24 min 58 sec ago

Somalia struggles after worst flooding in recent history

  • At least 10 people went missing when their boat capsized after the Shabelle river burst its banks
  • More than 250,000 people across Somalia were displaced by the recent severe flooding
MOGADISHU, Somalia: Ahmed Sabrie woke up to find his house half-submerged in fast-rising flood waters.

Frightened and confused, he herded his sleepy family members onto the roof of their home in central Somalia as scores of thousands of people in the town, Beledweyne, scrambled for their lives. Clinging to an electric power pylon by the edge of their roof, the family watched as their possessions were washed away.

“I could hear people, perhaps my neighbors, screaming for help but I could only fight for the survival of my family,” the 38-year-old Sabrie, the father of four, recalled.

As one of his children, unfed, wailed the family waited for more than 10 hours before a passing rescue boat spotted them.

Authorities have not yet said how many people died in the Somalia flooding last month, the country’s worst in recent history and the latest reminder that the Horn of Africa nation must prepare for the extremes expected to come with a changing climate.

At least 10 people went missing when their boat capsized after the Shabelle river burst its banks. Local officials have said at least 22 people in all are presumed dead and that toll could rise.

“This is a catastrophic situation,” Mayor Safiyo Sheikh Ali said. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who visited the town and waded through submerged areas, called the devastation “beyond our capacity” and pleaded for more help from aid groups.

With no proper emergency response plan for natural disasters, local rescuers used rickety wooden dhows to reach trapped people while helicopters provided by the United Nations plucked people from rooftops. African Union and Somali forces have joined the rescue operations and the Somali government airlifted food.

“Many people are still trapped in their submerged houses and we have no capacity and enough equipment to cover all areas,” said Abdirashakur Ahmed, a local official helping to coordinate rescue operations. Hundreds are thought to still be stuck.

With more heavy rains and flash flooding expected, officials warned thousands of displaced people against returning too quickly to their homes.

More than 250,000 people across Somalia were displaced by the recent severe flooding, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Beledweyne town was the worst affected. Several thousand people were sheltering under trees or in tents.

“Floods have destroyed more than three-quarters of Beledweyne and submerged many surrounding villages,” said Victor Moses, the NRC’s country director.

Aid groups said farms, infrastructure and roads in some areas were destroyed. The destruction of farmland near rivers is expected to contribute to a hunger crisis.

The possibility of further damage from heavy rains in the coming days remains a concern, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Parts of the Lower Juba, Gedo and Bay regions, where IOM has supported displaced populations for years, have been affected. Many displaced people were stranded without food, latrines or shelter.

“In Baidoa, people have moved to high ground where they are in immediate need of support,” said Nasir Arush, the minister for humanitarian and disaster management for South West State.

Survivors like Sabrie now must struggle to rebuild their lives.

“We’re alive, which I am thankful to Allah for, but this flood disaster wreaked havoc on both our livelihoods and households so I see a tough road ahead of us,” he said from a makeshift shelter built on higher ground outside town.