Fears grow as Pope has emergency surgery

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The Pope had a successful operation to help him breathe more easily yesterday after suffering a recurrence of his acute respiratory problems.

The Pope had a successful operation to help him breathe more easily yesterday after suffering a recurrence of his acute respiratory problems.

Vatican officials said today that he was breathing on his own after a restful night but had been advised not to speak for a few days.

Surgeons at the Gemelli Hospital in Rome performed a tracheotomy on the Pontiff, cutting a small opening into his neck and windpipe to allow air to flow directly into the lungs. The operation lasted 30 minutes. The Pope, who gave his consent for the operation, spent the night in his hospital room, a Vatican statement said, implying that he did not require treatedment in an intensive care ward.

The 84-year-old Pope was rushed to hospital for the second time this month after suffering renewed breathing problems and a relapse of the flu . He had been scheduled to preside over a meeting in the Vatican's Clementia Hall yesterday morning, but the previous afternoon he had a relapse of the flu symptoms from which he suffered in previous weeks, a bulletin from the Vatican said.

The leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics left the Gemelli on 10 February after treatment for the effects of flu exacerbated by Parkinson's disease, and the Vatican said that he had been making steady progress since then.

On Wednesday the Pope held a "virtual" general audience, addressing thousands of the faithful via a television link from his private study. Nuns, pilgrims and other Catholics knelt in fervent prayer for the Pope in St Peter's Basilica throughout yesterday afternoon.

The Vatican has traditionally played down papal health crises for fear of precipitating a power struggle over the succession to St Peter's throne but the Holy See has been more open about this pontiff's ailments than in any previous pontificate.

Italian politicians from across the political spectrum, evidently fearing the worst could be imminent, joined quickly in a chorus of concern.

"All Romans are close to the Pope at the moment," said Walter Veltroni, the post-Communist Mayor of Rome. Romano Prodi, leader of the centre-left opposition, said he was "very worried" and had contacted Cardinal Sodano to express his solidarity.

Ignazio La Russa, deputy head of the post-Fascist National Alliance, spoke of his "deep apprehension", while Giulio Andreotti, the elder statesman of the defunct Christian Democrat party, said the news caused him "much emotion ... Let us pray for him".

Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent of La Repubblica newspaper, said he believed the Pope's recent hospital sojourns marked a new chapter in John Paul II's long battle against Parkinson's disease.

"The papal illness has silently moved into a new phase," Mr Politi said.