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Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi dies Following Months-Long Illness

August 21st 2012

Meles Zenawi of ethiopia
Deceased Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57 after months of speculation about his health. State-run television announced his death on August 21, saying he died from a sudden infection late on August 20 while at a hospital abroad. Meles had been suffering from an undisclosed illness and had not been seen in public for more than a month.

The government-operated media source announced that Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will serve as acting prime minister.

​​Prime Minister Meles ruled Ethiopia for more than 20 years, after the rebel alliance he led, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, seized power in 1991. Meles earned praise abroad for improvements in the economy, education and health care. Nonetheless, human rights groups sharply criticized him for various abuses, including restrictions on independent media.

Under Meles, Ethiopia fought a border war with Eritrea and sent troops to Somalia to fight Islamist militants. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought from 1998 to 2000 in a conflict that killed more than 70,000 people. Tension between the two countries remained high.

Meles maintained close relations withe the United States, which considered him an ally in the fight against global terrorism. For instance, in 2006, Ethiopian troops entered Somalia to fight Islamist militants allegedly armed and trained by the Eritrean government.  Ethiopian forces returned to Somalia last year in a multi-nation offensive against militant group al-Shabab.

Meles' most serious political challenge came in the 2005 elections, when opposition parties said the government rigged to results to cheat them of victory.  Nearly 200 people died in post-election violence and protests. In the most recent elections in 2010, the EPRDF and its allies took all but one seat in parliament, sparking new accusations of fraud. The criticism increased in recent years as Ethiopian courts jailed journalists and political activists under an anti-terrorism law that rights groups said was overly vague and broad.

Meles was born in the northern Ethiopian town of Adwa in 1955.  He attended Addis Ababa University for two years before joining the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front, which was on of several groups that was fighting the Soviet-backed government of Mengistu Hailemariam.  The TPLF later became the core group within the EPRDF. After taking power in 1991, Meles served as president for four years before assuming the prime minister's post in 1995.


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