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Cameroon Denies Rumors About President's Health - 2004-06-07

Cameroon's government has condemned widespread rumors that President Paul Biya is gravely ill or dead, saying he is on a private visit to Europe. But many Cameroonians remain unconvinced.

A government statement says mounting rumors concerning Mr. Biya's health are pure fantasy and ill-intentioned. The statement says the head of state is in Europe on a private visit, and that he will be back in Cameroon soon.

But many Cameroonians remained concerned.

"People are feeling that our president is dead," said Bertin Tegua, an unemployed man, who lives in Yaounde. "Members of the government tell us that the president is doing well. I think there is a step that our government jumped, because at the beginning, if they tell us that our president is sick, then after they tells us that now the president is going well, I could understand. But they did not tell us at the beginning if our president is sick. I think there is something that they are trying to cover."

Since last week, Cameroonians, inside and outside the West African country, have been calling each other on the telephone and sending e-mails saying Mr. Biya died while at a hospital in Switzerland.

It is not clear where the rumor originated.

The 71-year-old president, who has been in power since 1982, is believed to have left for Switzerland late at night on May 29. His wife traveled outside the country the next day, raising concern that he might be seeking treatment.

Officials at the Swiss Foreign Ministry have said that all their sources of information corroborate the statement issued by the Cameroonian government.

But Tazoacha Asonganyi, the secretary-general of Cameroon's main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, says he believes the government statement is too vague.

"Such rumors put our nation in a state of psychosis that can affect the stability and social peace in our country," he said. "I think that the rumors have gone so far, that we require some pictures to reassure the citizens that, indeed, the head of state was alive and either well or sick."

Mr. Biya came to power as the designated successor of independence crusader Ahmadou Ahidjo, and has been accused by international observers of failing to establish democracy in Cameroon.

The opposition, which boycotted the 1997 presidential election over accusations of fraud, plans to have just one candidate face Mr. Biya in the next presidential vote scheduled for October.