Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is dead

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, regarded by the West as a bulwark against Islamic militancy, died while being treated abroad for an undisclosed illness, the government said on Tuesday.

Speculation that Meles, 57, an ally of Washington who twice sent troops into neighboring Somalia to help crush rebellions, was seriously ill had grown after he failed to attend an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.

"After attending medical services abroad, the prime minister passed away around midnight. It's time for his remains to come back in Ethiopia," government spokesman and Meles' right-hand-man, Bereket Simon, told reporters in the capital.

He said Meles had been recuperating well before being suddenly rushed to intensive care but did not say where he was being treated, highlighting the secretive tendencies of the tightly-controlled state.

Meles seized power in 1991 from Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta and went on to become a towering political figure on the continent. He was considered a leader the West could count on in its fight against al Qaeda-linked groups.

He was also widely credited for steering one of the world's poorest countries to sustained high economic growth but he cracked down hard on dissent and his image abroad was tainted after he jailed opposition leaders following the disputed 2005 election.

State media said Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn would be sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament. National television broadcast footage of Meles against a backdrop of solemn, instrumental music.

Source: Reuters