Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Dies at 57

Reports say Zenawi was in Belgium being treated for an unknown illness at the time of his death.

Posted: 08/21/2012 12:07 PM EDT

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in a foreign hospital Monday while being treated for an undisclosed illness, state officials announced. He was 57.

Zenawi was a close U.S. ally and Ethiopia’s ruler for over 20 years.

Monday night the country’s information minister, Simon Bereket, addressed the nation via the state television channel and relayed the news.

"It's a sad day for Ethiopia, the man who led our country for the past 21 years and brought economic and democratic changes, has died,” Bereket said. "Meles has been receiving treatment abroad. He was getting better and we were expecting him to return to Addis Ababa. But he developed a sudden infection and died around 11:40 p.m. last night.”

Although the Ethiopian government has not confirmed Zenawi’s location at the time of his death, a spokesman for the EU executive told reporters that Zenawi was in Belgium at the time of his death.

"He passed away during the night here in Brussels," European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told reporters Tuesday according to Reuters.

Zenawi will be succeeded by Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Throughout his decades-long tenure, Zenawi has come to be known for both his charisma and savvy leadership that led the country toward impressive economic growth and also alleged human rights violations against ethnic minorities.

Zenawi came to power in 1991 after leading the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta.

“Prime Minister Meles deserves recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia’s development, particularly his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia’s poor,” President Obama said in a statement Tuesday. The president said he was “grateful for Prime Minister Meles’ service for peace and security in Africa, his contributions to the African Union, and his voice for Africa on the world stage.”

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(Photo: REUTERS/Kahled Elfiqi/Pool)

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