Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died
while receiving medical treatment abroad, officials in the East
African nation announced on Tuesday, following weeks of speculation
about his health.
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has taken over the post in an acting role until the ruling party can decide on its next steps. National elections are scheduled for 2015 and will take place as planned, according to state media.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon said the 57-year-old prime minister died the previous night from complications from a "sudden infection."
"He was struggling with his health for a year, in the past 10 weeks he was under the attention of medical services abroad," Simon told reporters in Addis Ababa.
Zenawi was reportedly admitted to hospital in Belgium in July for reasons which remain unconfirmed. Simon said at that time the premier was in good health and dismissed allegations that Zenawi's condition was critical.
The body was expected to be returned to Ethiopia for formal mourning and a burial ceremony, though a date was not announced.
Opposition groups said the premier had not made a public appearance in the past two months. Zenawi was notably absent when Ethiopia hosted the African Union summit last month, fueling speculation about his wellbeing.
Ethiopia is seen as a key ally of the West in the war against radical Islamist groups in the region, particularly in Somalia, where troops have fought the al-Shabaab militia.
Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga told the BBC World Service that there was concern over instability without Zenawi.
"This region needs stability. Therefore we need a stable government in Ethiopia," said Odinga, referring to the country as "fragile."
"I don't know if they are sufficiently prepared for a succession ... but one would hope they could contain various factions within the government so the transition is smooth," the Kenyan leader said.
Analysts have commented that owing to Zenawi's often tight control over the country there is no clear succession plan.
The European Union issued a statement offering condolences to Ethiopia.
Zenawi was "a respected African leader. He demonstrated his strong personal commitment over many years to improving the lives of not just his own but all African peoples," the EU said.
Many African leaders highlighted Zenawi's role in pushing for economic development.
"It is an absolute tragedy for Africa and the people of Ethiopia to mourn such an exceptional leader who contributed as an active role player in various continental and global initiatives," said South Africa President Jacob Zuma.
Opposition groups, however, accuse Zenawi of stifling democracy and free speech while locking up tens of thousands of political opponents and journalists, or forcing them into exile.
"Ethiopia's jails are packed to the seams with suspected political opponents - from urban intellectuals to rural farmers. Torture and ill-treatment are commonplace," said the human rights group Amnesty International.
The former rebel leader helped oust the Communist rulers in 1991, before becoming head of government after elections in 1995.
Zenawi's economic policies spurred rapid economic growth, which reached 7.5 per cent in 2011, though poverty remains rife and some 85 per cent of the workforce relies on agriculture. The country is a large recipient of Western development aid.
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