Suriname's new president ailing at home from undisclosed illness; transfers power to VP

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — Suriname's newly elected president, former dictator Desi Bouterse, is ailing from an undisclosed illness and has temporarily ceded power to his vice president in the South American country.

Vice President Robert Ameerali announced Thursday in Parliament that he will be in charge until Sept. 2 while Bouterse rests at home.

He refused to disclose more specifics about the illness, saying only that the 64-year-old president "is doing well and no one needs to worry." A terse statement from the Cabinet said just that Bouterse is "sick."

Bouterse has not been seen much since his swearing-in ceremony earlier this month. An Aug. 17 Cabinet meeting in Paramaribo was his last public appearance.

Speculation in Paramaribo is widespread that Bouterse has fallen ill from dengue fever, a potentially serious mosquito-borne virus that is reaching epidemic stages across the region.

Bouterse is a former coup leader, convicted drug trafficker and accused murderer in Suriname. The two-time dictator's past had made his election last month by Parliament uncomfortable for the international community.

In May general elections, Bouterse's party captured 40 percent of the vote and 23 seats in parliament with a populist campaign that featured pledges to build more houses and increase social security spending. He was elected president in a parliamentary vote that came after months of jostling among Suriname's many political factions.

He first rose to power in 1980, when he led a coup that saw the constitution suspended and Parliament dissolved just five years after independence from Dutch rule.

Under international pressure, Bouterse allowed the return of civilian rule in 1987, only to launch a second coup in 1990. Even after stepping down as army chief in 1992, he remained a powerful force.

Convicted of drug trafficking in absentia in 1999 in the Netherlands, Bouterse was sentenced to 11 years in prison. But he avoided that punishment because Suriname doesn't have an extradition treaty with its former colonial ruler, and now he enjoys immunity as head of state during his five-year term.

Bouterse also faces a long-delayed trial in Suriname for his alleged role in the execution of political opponents without trial in 1982.

During his inauguration earlier this month, Bouterse pledged to fight corruption and help impoverished communities in the vast rain forest hinterland. He also said he would further distance the former Dutch colony from the Netherlands.