ROME, FEB. 24, 2005 ( John Paul II underwent a successful tracheotomy operation to ease his breathing problems, after having been hospitalized for congestion and fever linked to the flu.

During the 30-minute operation this evening, a breathing tube was inserted in the Pope's throat.

Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro Valls said the tracheotomy was a success and that the Holy Father, 84, had approved the procedure.

Earlier in the day the Pope had been readmitted to the Gemelli Polyclinic due to a relapse of the flu that caused his hospitalization Feb. 1.

"As of yesterday afternoon, Wednesday, February 23, the Holy Father showed signs of a relapse of the flu syndrome which had affected him in preceding weeks," said Navarro Valls, director of the Vatican press office, in a statement.

"For this reason, the Pope was admitted this morning to Gemelli Polyclinic for opportune specialized treatment and further tests," added the spokesman.

The Pope arrived by ambulance at the Gemelli around 11:30 a.m. Witnesses said he was conscious, on a stretcher but not totally lying down, and had a calm expression.

He returned to the same hospital where he was admitted three weeks ago with episodes of larynx-spasm caused by the flu.

The Pope is being treated in his room on the 10th floor of the hospital.

The courtyard of the Gemelli quickly filled with dozens of journalists. Some arrived in vans with parabolic antennas and parked in front of the hospital.

News of the Holy Father's relapse began to spread when his absence was noted at the consistory for the announcement of five upcoming canonizations. It was the first time John Paul II missed such a consistory.

On Wednesday, the Pontiff gave a "video-audience" from his private library to pilgrims gathered in Paul VI Hall, in lieu of his usual midweek general audience.