Ethiopia's prime minister has died: government

ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a regional strongman in the volatile Horn of Africa in power for over two decades, has died in hospital abroad, the government said Tuesday.

"Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed away yesterday evening at around midnight," Bereket Simon said, adding that the 57-year-old "was abroad" when he died, without giving further details.

Meles had not been seen in public for two months, and had been reported to have been sick in a hospital in Brussels, although Bereket gave no details of the illness. He was last seen in public at the G20 summit in Mexico in June.

"He had been recuperating well, but suddenly something happened and he had to be rushed to the ICU (intensive care unit) and they couldn't keep him alive," Bereket added.

According to Ethiopia's constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is to "act on behalf of the prime minister in his absence".

Government officials are expected to hold a press conference later Tuesday Diplomats and analysts in Addis Ababa say it has not been clear how the government has been run since Meles was reported to have fallen sick in June.

The position of president is largely honorific and Meles, a former rebel fighter who came to power in 1991 after toppling the bloody dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, held the real political power.

On paper Meles's government has fostered a policy of ethnic federalism, devolving significant powers to regional, ethnically based authorities but central control remains firmly in the hands of the ruling party.

His death also leaves a major power gap in the Horn of Africa, with Ethiopia playing a key role in the fortunes of many of its neighbours.

Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time last year - after a US-backed invasion in 2006 - and is supporting the fight against Al-Qaeda linked Shebab insurgents battling the Western-backed government.

Meles's death could also potentially see changes in the relationship with arch-foe Eritrea, which split from Ethiopian rule in 1993, before spiralling into a bitter 1998-2000 border war in which tens of thousands died.

A peace deal led to a tense standoff, with Meles refusing to pull troops from the border town of Badme, even after an international court ruled the town belonged to Eritrea. The town has been the source of festering discontent between the two nations ever since.

Meles also played a key role in brokering peace efforts between newly independent South Sudan and its former civil war foe Sudan.

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