ADDIS ABABA — Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a key regional strongman in the volatile Horn of Africa, is in "stable" health but has been told to take some leave, a government spokesman said Thursday.
"He has been given the necessary medical treatment by his doctors, and at this point his health condition is very good and stable," Bereket Simon told journalists. "The issue of stepping down has not been raised."
However "doctors have advised him to take a certain leave of absence so that he could have rapid recuperation and recovery" and have advised him to "stay out of active government functions," the spokesman added.
He was unable to say how long the leave of absence would last but said "it will be not too long" and that "we are expecting him to be back in days."
The 57-year-old premier has not been seen in public since June and missed an African Union summit hosted in the Ethiopian capital last weekend, prompting speculation over the former Marxist rebel's health.
Benin's president and current AU chairman Thomas Boni Yayi said at the opening of the summit that the "unusual absence... cannot go unnoticed, because we know that Mr Meles is full of dynamism and leadership in our meetings."
Diplomatic sources told AFP in Brussels on Wednesday that Meles was in hospital in a life-threatening condition.
"He is in a critical state, his life is in danger," said one diplomat.
"He is in a critical state but is alive," said another.
Earlier this week Meles's wife, Azeb Mesfin, herself a lawmaker, declined to talk to reporters about her husband's health.
Bereket refused to discuss Meles' ailment other than to say: "It's not brain cancer, it's not whatever the detractors say.
"It's a recent phenomenon and we hope it will go away as soon as possible," he said, conceding that Meles could have been suffering from the undisclosed illness "for longer than we know."
Meles, who toppled the bloody dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, has said he will stand down at the end of his current term in 2015.
Bereket made no mention of who was running the country during Meles' absence.
Ethiopia's constitution does not provide any replacement procedure for the prime minister but stipulates that the deputy prime minister should "act on his behalf" if he is absent.
Hailemariam Deselgn, 47, who has been deputy prime minister and foreign minister since 2010, should therefore be running day-to-day affairs.
Bereket said the workload Meles has been shouldering was "enormous" and that the ruling party, formerly a rebel group headed by Meles, has been saying a "new batch of leaders should come so that they should receive the baton."
The Ethiopian prime minister is either hailed as a visionary or criticized for ruling the country with an iron fist. Under Meles Ethiopia has proved a key ally of the US in its fight against Islamists in the Horn of Africa.
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