HAVANA - A letter by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro congratulating a Havana medical institute on its 50th anniversary was splashed across the front pages of Cuban newspapers on Thursday in his first appearance in print in four months.

The letter and an accompanying story, which took up the entire first page of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, appeared to be an attempt to squelch rumors about his health and to lend his weight to the government's justification for imposition of travel restrictions 50 years ago.

Most of the travel restrictions, the government announced on Tuesday, will be done away with starting Jan. 14.

Castro, 86, has been the subject of blogger and Twitter-fed rumors in recent weeks that he is dead or near dead, all fueled by his unusually long absence from the public eye.

After resigning the presidency in 2008, Fidel Castro regularly wrote columns for state press, but has not published one since June 19, and his last few were widely viewed as so oddball that they raised questions about his mental state.

His last known public appearance came in March when he met briefly with Pope Benedict during his visit to the communist island. Although he appeared mentally sharp, he had trouble walking and was badly stooped.

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