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Ethiopia denies reports of PM's grave illness

Ethiopia's prime minister is in "very good" health and will return to office in a few days, a top government official said Thursday, denying reports that the nation's longtime ruler is in life-threatening condition.

Meles Zenawi, 57, is following his doctor's advice to rest after experiencing exhaustion resulting from long years of service without a break, communications minister Bereket Simon said.

"Our prime minister had some health problems for which he needed professional attention. He has been given the necessary medical treatment by his doctors. At this point his health condition is very good and stable," Bereket told journalists.

Bereket declined to provide more details on what medical conditions the prime minister has or how long he has sought treatment. He did say the medical condition was "a recent phenomenon."

Opposition websites over the past few weeks have been publishing reports that claimed Meles was being treated for a serious illness and that he was "terminally ill." Images of Meles aired by state-run Ethiopian Television about a month ago showed him to be noticeably thinner. Reports indicated he was receiving medical treatment in Belgium.

The Ethiopian government, however, kept silent on his health during the last several weeks. The first confirmation that the prime minister was ill came on Saturday when Senegal's president said Meles was sick, the reason he did not attend last weekend's African Union summit in Addis Ababa. It was Meles' first absence at the AU summit since he assumed office in 1991.

On Monday, Ethiopia's parliament approved a belated government budget for the country's fiscal year that started on July 8 without Meles being present.

Bereket said Thursday that at no point has Meles' health been critical and that the prime minister is still in charge of the country.

Bereket says Meles is expected to return to office shortly. He did not say when.

The country's ruling party is currently implementing a plan that has seen senior Cabinet ministers retiring and being posted abroad as diplomats. Bereket says the plan is expected to culminate with Meles leaving office by 2015.