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Malawi President Return From US Breeds More Health Speculation

FILE - Malawi President Peter Mutharika addresses the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, in New York, Sept. 20, 2016.

Malawi President Peter Mutharika has returned home after an extended stay in the United States following the United Nations General Assembly. Mutharika’s prolonged absence was shrouded in secrecy, prompting rumors he was hospitalized and perhaps even had died. The government issued a statement that anyone spreading false rumors about the president’s health would be arrested. However, his arrival Sunday did not end that speculation.

Mutharika was received with songs by thousands of Malawians who welcomed him Sunday afternoon at Kamuzu International airport in the capital, Lilongwe.

The crowd, mostly supporters of the ruling Democratic People‘s Party, sang songs proclaiming that the president was fit and well.

However, Mutharika, who has long used both of his hands to gesture, came out of the aircraft and waived to the crowd using his left hand only.

Mutharika continued using his left hand when he was greeting government officials, including the country’s vice president, Saulos Chilima.

The president ignited more speculation when he did not to speak to journalists at the airport.

Mwai Mtumodzi, with the privately owned FM radio station MIJ, said it was unusual for the president to leave the airport without briefing reporters on crucial issues that surrounded his long stay in the U.S.

“I am sorry this might mean that the president is not okay, or it's either he is paralyzed on one side,” said Mtumodzi.

Rumors also were rife that Mutharika’s long stay in the U.S. was because he was undergoing surgery.

Billy Mayaya is a civil rights activist who wondered why Mutharika remained in the U.S. after the U.N. General Assembly.

He told VOA the president's arrival did not address the ongoing speculation about his state of health.

“Why is he using his left hand? Was an operation carried out on him? We will continue to speculate until we get proper explanation from the government,” said Mayaya.

Social media is now awash with speculation that Mutharika suffered a stroke that paralyzed part of his right side.

Government spokesperson Malison Ndau told VOA Sunday evening that he could not comment on the matter.

Presidential spokesperson Mgeme Kalirani told local radio Mutharika’s use of only his left hand is not a concern.

“There is nothing serious about it. And what is important is that the president is in the country. Malawians wanted the president to come. And some people expressed anxiety about where the president was and about his state of health,” said Kalirani.

Kalirani said Mutharika will soon hold a news conference about his return from the United States.