VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis has sent Syrian President Bashar Assad a letter expressing his "profound concern" for the humanitarian situation in Syria and in particular the plight of civilians in Idlib province.

The Vatican said Cardinal Peter Turkson, one of Francis' top advisers, hand-delivered the letter to Assad during a meeting Monday in Damascus attended by the Vatican's ambassador to Syria.

It was an unusual, hands-on gesture meant to show Francis' concern about the situation.

Assad's office said in a statement the talks focused on political efforts to end the crisis, with Syria's president blaming regional and Western countries for supporting insurgents.

Francis has frequently called for an end to the conflict and decried the plight of Syrian civilians. He has also condemned weapons manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe for fueling wars in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the letter asked for civilian lives and key infrastructure to be protected, such as schools and hospitals. The letter urged Assad to take concrete steps for reconciliation and to release political prisoners, the Vatican said.

Syria's conflict, which began in 2011, has killed more than 400,000 people.

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