By JASON STRAZIUSO and KIRUBEL TADESSE, Associated Press
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's long-time ruler and a major U.S. counter-terrorism ally who is credited with economic gains but blamed for human rights abuses, died of an undisclosed illness after not being seen in his East African country for weeks, Ethiopian authorities said Tuesday. He was 57.
Meles died in a Belgian hospital Monday just before midnight after contracting an infection, authorities said.
Hailemariam Desalegn, who was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in 2010, became acting prime minister and will be sworn in as prime minister after an emergency meeting of parliament, said Bereket Simon, the communications minister. Parliament is controlled by Meles' ruling party and governing coalition, ensuring Hailemariam will be approved. No new elections will be scheduled, Bereket said.
The death is not likely to have an impact on the strong U.S. diplomatic and military relations with Ethiopia, given the hand-picked nature of the transition of power.
A European Union spokesman said that Meles died in Brussels. Officials had expected Meles to return to Ethiopia but a sudden complication reversed what had been a good recovery, Bereket said.
Meles hadn't been seen in public for about two months. In mid-July, after Meles did not attend a meeting of heads of state of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, speculation increased that his health problems were serious. Ethiopian officials gave no details and said the prime minister was in "very good" health and would return to office, but international officials said quietly it was unlikely he would recover.
State TV on Tuesday showed pictures of Meles as classical music played in the background. Simon called the death shocking and devastating and the country's council of ministers declared a national day of mourning.
On Tuesday afternoon in Belgium, an Associated Press Television News crew saw a car containing a casket being driven from Saint Luc Hospital in Brussels. After stopping to pick up personnel at the Ethiopian Embassy, the car drove to a private airfield where an Ethiopian plane waited on the tarmac. Meles' body was expected in Ethiopia later Tuesday.
Opponents of Meles accuse him of killing and jailing opposition members and of rigging elections. Ethiopia's Somalia community in particular has suffered under Meles, who won his last election in 2010 with a reported 99 percent of the vote.
Reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Ethiopia, President Barack Obama said Meles deserved recognition for his contributions to his country's development, including "his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia's poor." But Obama also encouraged Ethiopia to enhance its support for democracy and human rights.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Meles "will be remembered for his exceptional leadership and advocacy on African issues within and outside the continent, as well as for overseeing his country's economic growth and development," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Former U.S. president and Nobel peace laureate Jimmy Carter called Meles "a committed supporter" for two decades of the Carter Center's work to improve the lives of Ethiopians that led to increased crop production, the training of 30,000 health workers, and programs to help prevent the spread of horrific diseases such as Guinea worm, river blindness and malaria.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, offered his condolences and praised Meles' development work, calling him "a respected African leader." But he also expressed concern about the state of democracy in the country.
"I sincerely hope that Ethiopia will enhance its path of democratization, upholding of human rights and prosperity for its people, and of further regional stabilization and integration," Barroso said in a statement.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga appealed to Ethiopians to "remain calm, maintain law and order and ensure the constitution is adhered to at this moment of transition."
Born on May 8, 1955, Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust Mengistu Haile Mariam's Communist military junta, which was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian deaths. Meles became prime minister in 1995, a position that is both the head of the federal government and armed forces.