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Yeltsin looks picture of health in meeting with ailing pope

Russian President Boris Yeltsin looked a picture of health and vigor beside the frail Pope John Paul Tuesday when the two men who helped change the course of communism met for talks.

Yeltsin, who at 67 is 10 years younger than the Polish pope, alighted from his black Zil limousine looking sprightly and beaming broadly for his second trip to the Vatican.The pontiff looked in good form but had far more difficulty walking and sank into his chair with a sigh at the start of their meeting. Yeltsin, sitting on the other side of a plain wooden desk in the pope's study, leaned forward eagerly.

Witnesses were struck by the genuine warmth of the atmosphere, which continued in 50 minutes of wide-ranging talks.

Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's private secretary, told reporters he had politely interrupted the two men after around 45 minutes to say Yeltsin had another engagement - a state banquet hosted by President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.

The pope made as if to rise to end the meeting, but Yeltsin, who already broke with protocol earlier Tuesday on an official outing to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, stopped him: "Holy Father, we haven't finished yet," he said.

The pair carried on their private talks five minutes more.

Yeltsin and the pope, both scrutinized on every public outing for signs of frailty, warmly recalled their first meeting in December 1991. Less than a week later, the Soviet Union no longer existed and Yeltsin was sitting in the Kremlin.