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Pope Francis prays alone in rubble at scene of Italian earthquake

Pope Francis stands in front of rubble, with the standing bell tower in the background, of the quake-struck town of Amatrice

Pope Francis has made a surprise visit to the site of the devastating earthquake in central Italy, praying silently alone amid the rubble in the hardest-hit part of the ruined town of Amatrice.

The Vatican only announced the Pope's visit to the quake zone shortly after his arrival, in keeping with Francis's previously stated wishes to keep the visit private.

"I didn't come earlier so as not to cause problems, given your condition," the Pope told survivors, according to Vatican Radio. "I didn't want to be a bother."

Photographs released by the Vatican show the Pope praying amid the rubble with Amatrice's medieval bell tower, still standing in what has become a symbol of hope, visible in the background.

The Pope started his tour at the makeshift school set up in containers, meeting with more than 100 students, some of whom gave him drawings. He also met with a man who lost his wife and children in the quake, the Vatican said.

Francis had previously made clear his intention to visit the quake-hit zone but without announcing a date. He indicated he wanted to go alone "to be close to the people".

From Amatrice, the Pope is expected to also visit the hard-hit towns of Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto.

The August 24 quake killed nearly 300 people and left another 4,000 people homeless.

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