The Pope 'fine' after surgery on broken leg

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ROME - The Pope was declared to be in an excellent condition yesterday after undergoing surgery on his thigh bone, broken in a fall on Thursday night, writes Patricia Clough.

Surgeons at the Policlinico Gemelli, Rome's leading Catholic hospital, replaced the head and neck of his right femur which snapped when the 73-year-old pontiff slipped and fell while getting out of the bath in his Vatican apartment. The doctors said that it was a common fracture among older people and that such an operation, although of a 'certain complexity' was normal.

The Vatican spokesman, Joaquino Navarro-Valls said afterwards 'his overall condition was excellent'. A bulletin issued by his doctors added that after the operation, which lasted two and a half hours, the Pope recovered consciousness 'in a calm and normal way'. He is likely to remain in hospital for two to three weeks.

Gianfranco Fineschi, the orthopaedic surgeon who led the operation, said the Pope will have to give up two of his favourite sports, skiing and mountain-climbing. 'Even if the Pope were 20 years younger I would be saying the same thing,' he added.

It was the sixth time the Pope has been in hospital during his pontificate, the first being for emergency surgery for bullet wounds after the assassination attempt by a Turkish gunman, Ali Agca, in 1981.

The accident and operation inevitably raise the question of the Pope's state of health. As with previous Popes, unverifiable rumours frequently circulate - more often abroad than in Rome - that he is less well than the Vatican admits.

A sportsman all his life, the highly conservative Polish Pope has a strong physique and has frequently taken breaks to ski or hike in the Italian mountains. His travels abroad or within Italy are taken at a punishing pace - he was due to visit Sicily this weekend and Belgium in a fortnight. But while he often looks well for a man of 73, at times he looks tired, stooped and absent. During a brief holiday in the Abruzzi mountains earlier this month it was noticed that he preferred to walk rather than ski and looked weary.

There have been rumours that he suffers from blackouts following his fall down the steps to his throne during an audience last November, in which he dislocated his shoulder. But Vatican officials have firmly denied this happened then or in Thursday's accident. The Pope insisted on celebrating Mass, albeit seated, before going into hospital and joked with staff at the hospital, who are now familiar faces, 'you have to admire my loyalty'.