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Nigerian President Breaks Seven-Week Silence

People rally to protest over a power vacuum created by the absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua, Abuja, 12 Jan 2009

People rally to protest over a power vacuum created by the absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua, Abuja, 12 Jan 2009

Umaru Yar'Adua, hospitalized in Saudi Arabia in November, says he is getting better and hopes to resume his duties

Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua has made his first public comments since being hospitalized in Saudi Arabia some seven weeks ago.

In a telephone interview with the BBC, aired Tuesday, the president said he is getting better and hopes that soon he will make enough progress to return to Nigeria and resume his duties.

The BBC says the interview was recorded Monday, the same day a spokesman denied rumors Mr. Yar'Adua was dead or in a coma. The Nigerian leader sounded lucid but weak, and gave no indication when he might come home.

The president's absence has sparked concern of a power vacuum in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country.

In Abuja Tuesday, the Nigerian House of Representatives voted to send a delegation to Saudi Arabia to visit the president and discuss "issues of national importance."

Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters marched to the National Assembly building, demanding to know who is running the country in Mr. Yar'Adua's absence.

Elsewhere, a federal court is to hold a hearing on three lawsuits seeking to force a transfer of power from Mr. Yar'Adua to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

Prior to the BBC interview, Mr. Yar'Adua had not made a public appearance or comment since late November, when he checked into the hospital in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

Nigerian officials have said the president was hospitalized for a heart condition, acute peridcarditis, the inflammation of the membrane around the heart. Mr. Yar'Adua is also known to suffer from a chronic kidney ailment.

Critics say the president's absence violates the constitution and has left the country dangerously adrift.

Nigeria's constitution states that the president should inform both houses of parliament if he is unable to govern, and that the vice president should take over, until the president states publicly he can reassume his duties.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.