Pope, in interview, skirts issue of return of occupied parts of Ukraine

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis has said an eventual return by Russia of occupied territories in Ukraine is a "political problem" to be resolved by both sides, in his first public comment on Ukraine's request for him to back its plan demanding a total Russian withdrawal.

In an interview with Telemundo television, Francis did not take a position on the return of territories as a fundamental condition for peace, something on which Ukraine and many of its Western backers insist.

In the interview with the U.S.-based Spanish language network, Francis was asked twice if Russia should hand back the territories. He did not address that part of the question the first time but when pressed again, he said:

"It's a political issue. Peace will be achieved once they can talk to each other, face to face or through intermediaries. If they don't talk … it's a political issue".

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met the pope at the Vatican on May 13 and asked him to back Kyiv's peace plan, which Zelenskiy has repeatedly said is not open to negotiation.

The plan calls for restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities, and the restoration of Ukraine's state borders.

At the start of the war, the pope tried to take a more balanced approach in hopes of being a mediator but later began forcefully condemning Russia's actions, comparing them to some of the worst crimes against Ukraine during the Soviet era.

In the interview, conducted in Rome on Thursday and broadcast on Friday, Francis said the Ukrainian side was "not getting their hopes" with the prospects of a mediation but added that the nations supporting Ukraine had formed a "very strong" bloc.

Francis has asked Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, head of the Italian bishops' conference, to carry out a peace mission to try to end the war.

Zuppi, 67, hails from the Sant' Egidio Community, a Rome-based peace and justice group which in 1992 brokered a deal that ended the civil war in Mozambique, which had killed about a million people and displaced about 4 million others.

A diplomatic source has said Zuppi would try to meet separately with Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Conor Humphries)