Duchess Sophie visits Ukraine in first trip by British royal since start of war

State funeral of former Italian President and senator Giorgio Napolitano in Rome

LONDON (Reuters) - Sophie, Britain's Duchess of Edinburgh, has visited Ukraine, meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife in the first trip to the country by a British royal since the conflict with Russia began, Buckingham Palace said on Monday.

Sophie, 59, the wife of King Charles' youngest brother Prince Edward, made the surprise visit on behalf of Britain's Foreign Office to show solidarity with those impacted by the war and as part of her work to champion survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, the palace said in a statement.

"It's true that women and girls pay the highest price in terms of human cost when it comes to the way that they are affected, the way that they can be used as weapons of war," she said in a speech during the visit.

"Rape is used to demean, to degrade and to destroy, and we have to get better at trying to prevent that from happening," she added.

The foreign office said Sophie paid her respects to those who lost their lives in Bucha, a town near Kyiv where Russian forces are accused of committing war crimes including executions and rapes before it was recaptured two years ago.

She met with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and survivors of torture, the ministry said, and children who had been returned to Ukraine after being separated from their families and taken to Russia.

She also met female volunteers who have helped their communities cope with the aftermath of attacks with mental healthcare activities for children.

Britain has been one of the most vocal and active backers of Ukraine since Russia invaded, and has pledged more than 4.7 billion pounds ($5.91 billion) in non-military support.

Sophie's trip to Ukraine follows previous visits she has made to countries including Kosovo, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Colombia to hear first-hand testimonies from victims of conflict-related sexual violence.

"I've met so many wonderful Ukrainians ... in the United Kingdom, who have found a home over there," she said, before adding, "their hearts remain here."

"They would like to return home one day, and hopefully that will happen," she said.

($1 = 0.7958 pounds)

(Reporting by Michael Holden, additional reporting by Muvija M; Editing by Bill Berkrot)