Ethiopia says Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is taking "sick leave" but will remain in power while he deals with an unspecified illness.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon briefed reporters Thursday in Addis Ababa, following media reports that the Ethiopian leader was critically ill at Saint Luc Hospital in Brussels, Belgium.
Bereket specifically denied reports on Ethiopian dissident websites that Meles has brain cancer. The spokesman did not identify the prime minister's illness or say where he is being treated, but said he is in "good and stable condition" and remains in charge of the government.
A government statement said Mr. Meles' sick leave was prescribed by his doctor, and noted he will resume work when he recuperates.
Born May 8, 1955 in Adwa, northern Ethiopia
Suspended studies in 1974 to join Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front, TPLF
Chairman of TPLF and Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front since 1989
Led EPRDF rebels to seize power in 1991 and became president
Prime minister since being elected in 1995
Serves as African Union spokesperson on climate change
Praised for helping lift Ethiopia out of poverty after civil war
Criticized for silencing all forms of dissent
Known as ally with U.S. against terrorism
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn told VOA the press conference signals a "significant health issue."
"You wouldn’t make a statement like that - that is so open-ended - unless the problem is significant" Shinn said. He noted he has no information about the prime minister's health.
He added that Meles is the kind of leader who plans ahead. And if he is ill, he says the 57-year-old prime minister likely has a plan in place.
"I'd be willing to bet very good money that he has been planning some way to deal with this issue in order to ensure some kind of reasonable succession of government in Ethiopia," said Shinn.
Meles has led Ethiopia for more than 20 years, since taking power in a 1991 coup. He has not been seen in public for more than two weeks, and did not attend an African Union summit last Saturday and Sunday in the Ethiopian capital.
In an interview with VOA, Sibhat Nega of Ethiopia's ruling party said Meles is in better shape than reported.
"I can tell you for sure that there is no undesirable eventuality regarding his health," he said. "I am 100 percent sure that he's recovering health-wise, and he will be back to his official duty in a number of days."
Nega's statements are consistent with those of government officials, who said Wednesday the prime minister is sick, but not gravely ill.
Nega, who is a friend of the prime minister's, said the government has been functioning normally during Meles' absence, insisting that the "system does not depend on one person."