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Meles Zenawi: Ethiopian prime minister dies after illness

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Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zeinawi is said to have contracted an infection while recovering from an illnesss. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

The Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, 57, has died of a sudden infection while recovering from illness at a hospital abroad, the country’s state-run television said on Tuesday.

The longtime ruler had not been seen in public for several weeks. The broadcast said Meles died just before midnight on Monday after contracting an infection.

The most recent images of Meles aired had shown him noticeably thinner.

The country’s deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, is said to be taking charge of the cabinet.

“Prime Minister Zenawi suddenly passed away last night. Meles was recovering in a hospital overseas for the past two months but died of a sudden infection at 11.40,” state television said.

Born in 1955, Meles became president in 1991 and prime minister in 1995, a position that is both head of the federal government and armed forces. The US had long viewed Meles as a strong security partner and has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. US military drones that patrol east Africa, especially over Somalia, are stationed in Ethiopia.

Though a US ally, Ethiopia has long been criticised by human rights groups for the government’s strict control and dissent is not tolerated.

During Meles’s election win in 2005, when it appeared the opposition was likely to make gains, he tightened security across the country and on the night of the election declared a state of emergency, outlawing any public gathering as his ruling party claimed a majority win. Opposition members accused Meles of rigging the election, and demonstrations broke out. Security forces moved in, killing hundreds of people and jailing thousands.

In 2010, Meles won another five years in office while receiving a reported 99% of the vote. Meles was the longtime chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and has always identified strongly with his party.

“I cannot separate my achievements from what can be considered as the achievements of the ruling party. Whatever achievement there might have been, it does not exist independent of that party,” Meles once said.

Meles grew up in the northern town of Adwa, where his father had 13 siblings from multiple women. He moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, on a scholarship after completing an eight-year elementary education in just five years.

State TV said funeral arrangements would be announced soon.

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