ROME - Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Italy on Thursday for the first time in four years, at the invitation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was in Moscow last October.
Amid heavy security in Rome, Putin went from the airport to the Vatican to speak with Pope Francis, with whom he had met twice before.
The Russian leader thanked the pope for the nearly hour-long closed-door talks and called the discussion "very substantive and interesting." The Vatican issued a statement after the meeting in the Apostolic Palace, saying the talks focused on the situations in Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.
The conflict in Ukraine and last year's schism between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches had been expected to be the focus of discussions, but no further details were made available by the Vatican. Catholic leaders from Ukraine will be gathering at the Vatican in the coming days to discuss the various problems in the country.
After the Vatican meeting, Putin met with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinale Palace.
Sources described "bilateral relations between Russia and Italy as excellent," in spite of existing differences with the West on matters regarding Ukraine. Common concern was expressed by the Russian president and the Italian head of state about "the civil war in Libya and the consequent return to Islamic terrorism in Syria." The importance of stability in Libya for Italy and Europe was also noted.
Putin then held a meeting with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at government headquarters.
Conte said they discussed the situation in Libya and their shared belief that the instability could cause a further escalation on the ground, causing greater humanitarian problems, further insurgence of terrorism and insecurity for energy infrastructures.
The Russian president and Italian prime minister were also attending a meeting of the Russian-Italian Civil Society Dialogue Forum, under way at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Putin had dinner with Conte and the two deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, as well as Foreign Affairs Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi.
Putin also met with his longtime friend, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.