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Eritrean TV shows president after health rumours

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Eritrean state television has broadcast an interview with President Isaias Afewerki to quash speculation about his health after days of absence from public view.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki during an interview with Reuters in the capital Asmara May 20, 2009. REUTERS/Presidential Press Service/Handout

Rumours about the fate of the president, in power since 1993 after leading his country to independence from Ethiopia, made the rounds earlier this week after Isaias failed to make his normally regular appearances on television for several days.

“I am lucky, I enjoy robust health,” Isaias, 66, told state-run EriTV in what the station said was a live interview conducted late on Saturday. He looked relaxed and was wearing a loose white shirt.

“The speculated ill-health is only in the minds of the authors of such a baseless rumor,” the president added in the interview, extracts of which were translated by the information ministry.

Eritrea’s exiled opposition has said repeatedly that the president is suffering from a serious liver ailment and has been receiving medical attention in Qatar, with which his nation has close ties.

Speculation about his health has stirred debate over who might eventually replace him. Isaias has no obvious successor but the opposition says he might be grooming his son, Abraham, for the top job.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have also mentioned the possibility of the military elite aiming to take over power in the Red Sea state.

Eritrea refuted speculation about his health last week and accused the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of spreading “lies” about it.

Asmara often criticises Washington saying it backs arch-rival Ethiopia in the two countries’ frontier dispute.

Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads since their 1998-2000 border war, which killed 70,000 people, and they accuse one another of backing the other’s rebels and working to topple the other’s government.

Isaias accused Washington last month of plotting Ethiopian cross-border raids that targeted alleged rebel camps.

The president said “he had been abroad on a 3-day working visit, and that upon return home he has been on a tour of inspection to Gash-Barka, Anseba and the Northern Red Sea regions from 21 to 22 April,” the ministry said.

Eritrean television is blocked in neighbouring Ethiopia but the interview was posted on internet websites.

With no independent media and frequent accusations of harassment of journalists, Eritrea is consistently ranked among the world’s top violators of press freedom by rights groups. Eritrea, for its part, accuses media rights groups of launching a smear campaign against the nation.