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Mandela, John Paul meet again

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A jaunty Nelson Mandela was greeted by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican Thursday, returning as president of South Africa eight years after his first visit as a newly released prisoner.

"Well, Your Holiness!" Mandela said in a booming voice as he strode down a hallway to meet the pontiff outside the papal library. "What an honor it is for me to meet Your Holiness again."The two leaders - Mandela one year older at 79 - clasped hands. "Welcome to the Vatican," John Paul said.

"Your Holiness is looking very well," Mandela said. The pope, who has been ailing in recent years and walked with a cane during the visit, smiled slightly.

"God bless South Africa," John Paul said after their 25-minute meeting.

During their conversation, which was private, Mandela gave thanks for Vatican and South African Roman Catholic Church support for the country and its "difficult moments of the past," said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

They underlined the need to find "urgent solutions" to Africa's critical problems, he said.

The pope was a prominent voice condemning apartheid in the 1980s. He has long declared himself an admirer of Mandela, and once said he was praying every day for his release from prison.

Mandela was jailed for 27 years by the apartheid regime. He came to the Vatican five months after his release. After being elected president in 1994, Mandela welcomed the pope in South Africa.

On leaving, he wished the pope "a long and healthy life."