Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi dead

Western ally in war against Islamic militancy, ailing PM was being treated in Brussels

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, regarded by the West as a bulwark against Islamic militancy, died on Monday night in a Brussels hospital after a long battle with illness.

Speculation that Meles, 57, an ally of Washington who twice sent troops into neighbouring Somalia to help crush rebellions, was seriously ill had grown after he failed to attend an African Union summit last month. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will be sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament and the ruling party will meet to choose a successor but no date has been set.

“The death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons,” the African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa, said in a statement. Bereket Simon, Meles’ right-hand-man and government spokesman, said the leader had been ill for a year and had passed away around midnight after he was suddenly rushed to intensive care.

Meles seized power in 1991 from Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military junta and went on to become a towering political figure on the continent who was widely credited for steering one of the world’s poorest countries to fast economic growth.

Rights groups criticised him for cracking down hard on dissent but the West generally turned a blind eye to the repression, reluctant to pick a fight with a partner in the fight against al-Qaeda-linked groups in Africa.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Meles was an “inspirational spokesman for Africa”.

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