VATICAN CITY - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Pope Francis on Monday while police enforced a protest ban in central Rome as feelings run high over Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish militia inside Syria.

During the 50-minute audience, Pope Francis gave Erdogan a medallion embossed with an angel strangling a “demon of war” - a symbol of peace and justice.

For the first visit by a Turkish leader for 59 years, the Italian authorities have imposed a 24-hour ban on demonstrations which covers Erdogan’s arrival from late Sunday to his departure on Monday evening.

Erdogan’s convoy arrived at a deserted Saint Peter’s Square, which was under heavy security as a total of 3,500 police have been deployed for the visit.

Nevertheless a small sit-in protest by some 30 people, organised by a Kurdish association in Italy, took place on Monday not far from the Vatican.

Turkey on January 20 launched its “Olive Branch” operation against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia which Ankara sees as a terror group and a threat to Turkish territory.

The Turkish army and allied Ankara-backed Syrian rebel forces are seeking to oust the YPG from its western border stronghold of Afrin but the operation has faced fierce resistance. “In Afrin, a new crime against humanity is under way,” the Kurdish association said. The fighters and civilians killed in the Turkish assault on the region included female combatant Barin Kobani whose mutilated body appeared in a shocking video, prompting accusations by her family and Kurdish officials that she was “defiled” by Turkish-backed rebels. The YPG, while considered a “terrorist” group by Ankara, is allied to the United States in its battle against Islamic State group jihadists.

The pope, who has railed against the horrors of war and weapons of mass destruction, gave Erdogan the gift of a medallion with “an angel of peace strangling the demon of war”. “It’s a symbol of a world based on peace and justice,” the pontiff said, according to two journalists present during the meeting.

Erdogan for his part was expected to thank the pope for opposing the decision by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Syria strikes kill 23 civilians

At least 23 civilians were killed on Monday as Syrian government air strikes pounded a rebel-held enclave near the capital Damascus, a monitor said.

The region of Eastern Ghouta is home to an estimated 400,000 people living under government siege and facing escalating bombardment in recent weeks.

“Dozens of air strikes hit several areas in Eastern Ghouta, killing 23 civilians including four children,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

The deadliest raids hit a market in the town of Beit Sawa, killing nine civilians including two children.

Another six civilians, including a young girl, were killed in bombardment on the town of Hazzeh.

The remaining eight were killed in strikes across the rest of the besieged region, and more than 80 people were wounded, the Observatory said.

An AFP correspondent in Eastern Ghouta could hear warplanes above, circling around the town every few minutes.

Eastern Ghouta is supposed to be one of four de-escalation zones agreed last year, but violence has ramped up there in recent weeks.

This month alone, chlorine is suspected of having been used on two occasions in munitions launched by the regime on Eastern Ghouta, causing respiratory problems among civilians.

On Friday, Syrian regime bombardment killed at least 11 civilians.

The state news agency SANA said Monday that a woman was killed and three people wounded in rebel rocket fire from Eastern Ghouta onto the capital’s regime-controlled district of Bab Touma.

Syria’s war has killed more than 340,000 people and displaced millions since it began in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.