Seychelles 'kingmaker' ex-president dies at 83

VICTORIA (Reuters) - Former Seychelles President Albert René, who seized power in a 1977 coup and dominated politics in the Indian Ocean archipelago for nearly three decades, died aged 83 on Wednesday.

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Even after he stepped down in 2004, René remained head of his party and was nicknamed the “kingmaker” and “the boss” for the influence he wielded in Seychelles, a string of 115 islands with a population of around 95,000 that are a haven for wealthy tourists.

“It is with deep sorrow that I hereby announce that former president France-Albert René passed away early today,” current President Danny Faure said in a radio broadcast. The former president had been admitted to hospital with an undisclosed illness on Feb. 12.

Faure paid tribute to Rene’s contribution to the islands’ fight for independence from Britain, which it achieved in 1976.

After toppling the fledgling independent government less than a year later, Rene set up a one-party, socialist state.

He was accused by opposition groups and other critics of widespread human rights abuses, which he denied, and survived several coup attempts.

The most famous, led by a British mercenary nicknamed “Mad” Mike Hoare in 1981, involved recruiting mercenaries to pose as a drinking club called the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers. The coup was foiled after their weapons were discovered at the airport.

The country adopted a new constitution that allowed multi-party politics in the 1990s, and Rene eventually handed over power to his then vice-president, James Michel, in 2004.

René continued to lead his United Seychelles (US) party, formerly known as the People’s Party, long after leaving office. Even after stepping down as party president, he was honored as its patron and founder.

That power base showed signs of weakening when it lost 2016 parliamentary elections to the opposition.

The next presidential elections are due in 2020.

“Many people voted for Rene’s party to honor him, but now that he is gone, I don’t see them winning again soon,” said a fisherman who declined to give his name, as he set out on his boat at Anse aux Pins.

Reporting by George Thande; Editing by Katharine Houreld, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry