Ethiopian state television has announced the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a key but controversial figure in African politics. It said the 57-year-old died from a "sudden infection" at an unnamed hospital abroad.
Speculation that Meles Zenawi was seriously ill had grown after he failed to attend an African Union summit in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the bloc, last month. Ethiopian diplomats had said variously that he was being treated in Belgium or Germany.
State media said Meles passed away on Monday night. It named deputy premier Hailemariam Desalegn as acting prime minister of the predominantly Christian nation of 84 million.
"Prime Minister Zenawi suddenly passed away last night," said state television while broadcast solemn music. It said details of his funeral would be announced soon.
Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon said Ethiopia would remain stable.
"I assure you everything is stable and everything will continue as charted by the prime minister," Bereket said.
Among initial reactions, South African presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj described Meles as a "strong minded figure."
"Meles Zenawi was a leading figure in African politics," said Maharaj, adding that Meles had managed "a transition to democracy" while trying to build a "developmental state."
President Mwai Kibaki of neighboring Kenya said Meles' death was a "devastating loss" for the Horn of Africa region.
Kibaki said Meles was a "pragmatic and visionary" leader whose negotiation skills would be "forever missed across the region and Africa."
Meles had played a key role in brokering peace efforts between the newly independent South Sudan and its former civil war foe Sudan, according to South Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin.
"He was the one person who could say in black and white what the position of both countries was - and was respected by both," Benjamin said.
Meles, an intellectual ex-rebel, won backing among Western powers for spurring Ethiopia's economy and sending troops to help al Qaeda-linked militants in neighboring Somalia.
But, he was often accused by human rights groups at home and abroad of crushing opposition dissent and silencing journalists as well as ethnic minorities such as the residents of Ethiopia's eastern Ogaden region.
Western nations regard Ethiopia as a key nation in northern Africa
Between 1998 and 2000 Ethiopia's well-equipped army fought a border war with breakaway Eritrea that left tens of thousands dead after Meles fell out with ex-rebels who had also overseen Eritrea's independence in 1993.
Meles came to power in 1991 with US backing. His rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) toppled the then-military junta of former Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Meles served as Ethiopian president until 1995. He then became prime minister, leading a coalition with other Ethiopian movements that make up the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Front (EPRDF), which is Ethiopia's ruling party.
Meles forged Ethiopian business ties with India and Turkey as well as Asian powerhouse China.
In his final decade, Meles spearheaded an African push for more fairness in global climate change talks. He had degrees in business from Britain's Open University and in economics from the Erasmus University in The Netherlands.
ipj/mz (AFP, Reuters, dpa)