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After first denial, state confirms Malawi president's death

State radio in Malawi has confirmed that President Bingu wa Mutharika has died from a heart attack, after first insisting that he was alive and in South Africa. Vice President Joyce Banda was sworn in as his successor.

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika has died from a heart attack, state radio said on Saturday, confirming reports from medical sources a day prior.

"We are sad to announce that the president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, has died," secretary to the president and cabinet Bright Msaka said in a statement aired on state radio. "The Milpark Hospital in South Africa has also confirmed his death. There will be 10 days of national mourning, and the constitution will be adhered to in managing the transition."

Mutharika suffered a heart attack on Thursday, and doctors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said on Friday that he had died. State radio on Friday claimed that he was alive and had been flown to South Africa for treatment.

Speculation arose that the government was claiming he was alive in order to buy time to find a replacement.

Power transition in doubt

Vice President Joyce Banda was sworn in on Saturday, to take over the late president's term, which is due to end early in 2014, as Malawi's constitution stipulates. Banda fell out with Mutharika in 2010 and was evicted from his ruling Democratic Progressive Party, only to form her own party while remaining vice president.

Banda appeared at a press conference in the capital, Lilongwe, on Saturday with members of cabinet, the attorney general and the heads of the army and police. She declared 10 days of official mourning with flags to be flown at half-mast and somber music to be played on the state broadcaster.

"I call upon all Malawians to remain calm and to keep the peace during this time of bereavement," she said. When asked by a reporter if she was assuming the presidency, she said, "As you can see, the constitution prevails."

Mutharika delegated much responsibility to his brother, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Arthur Mutharika, who may challenge Banda for leadership. Banda had told reporters on Friday that she was being excluded from information on President Mutharika's condition.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan released a statement on Saturday urging political leaders to "ensure an orderly transfer of presidential powers in keeping with Malawi's existing constitutional order ahead of the country's next presidential elections."

Brussels urges peaceful transition

The European Union also called for a peaceful transition of power, expressing condolences in a joint statement and calling Malawi "an example of democracy with its peaceful transitions of power and respect for the constitution and the outcome of elections. We express our hope that this tradition will be respected and that there will be a calm and peaceful transition of power in full respect of the provisions of the constitution."

President Mutharika, who first came to power in 2004, is a former World Bank official who was initially praised for his stewardship of one of the world's poorest countries.

Anti-government demonstrations last year were met with an unprecedented security crackdown that claimed 19 lives. Elections are not due until 2014.

The southern African nation of about 14 million people is mostly reliant on subsistence farming, including fishing in Lake Malawi.

acb/rc (AFP, Reuters, dpa)