December 7, 2007 / 7:42 AM / 12 years ago

From hospital, Somali leader laughs off health scare

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Clad in hospital garb and cracking jokes from his bed, Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf dismissed reports he was close to death, saying on Friday he was in good health after recovering from a chest illness.

Somali's President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed greets a police officer upon his arrival at the conference hall in Mogadishu July 15, 2007. REUTERS/Shabelle Media

“I’m fine, I am OK,” Yusuf told Reuters in his hospital room in Nairobi. “I had pneumonia ... and I am well now.”

Yusuf, who had a liver transplant 13 years ago, said he would travel very soon to London for his yearly check-up.

The 72-year-old former Somali army colonel and warlord was flown into the capital of neighboring Kenya on Tuesday with a chest problem that set off a string of reports that he was near death. Yusuf dismissed these with a hearty laugh.

Some Somalia experts say Yusuf is nearly 80, but he insisted his birth date was December 15, 1934, though he added: “I am an old man already.”

Yusuf spoke to Reuters while seated upright in his hospital bed, where he was watching television and speaking with aides.

He appeared lively and bright-eyed as he spoke, clad in green hospital scrubs which he later swapped for a black suit. Contrary to some reports, Yusuf was not connected to any life support machines.

Aides have attributed his illness to the stress of Somali politics over the past month, which has seen the old soldier run one prime minister out of office and bring in another one.

Yusuf appointed longtime Somali civil servant and lawyer Nur Hassan Hussein as prime minister almost three weeks ago.

“He’s professional, he’s been a police colonel. He knows governance completely and has a degree in law. And he is absolutely serious,” Yusuf said.

POLITICAL CLOUDS

Hussein, who won international diplomatic praise for his resume which includes a 16-year stint heading Somalia’s Red Crescent Society, is already facing his first political setback.

Five ministers quit cabinet barely 24 hours after their appointment on Sunday, saying their clans had been snubbed.

Yusuf dismissed their departure: “There are some people in cabinet who are making noise, but they will quiet down.”

Asked if his transitional federal government will be ready to hold elections in late 2009 as is required under its charter, he said he and Hussein would make sure that happened.

“Of course. That is compulsory. Our charter compels us not to postpone the election. We will not,” he said.

Besides internal wrangling, Yusuf’s government faces a persistent insurgency in Mogadishu, where Islamist militants are fighting Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies.

The conflict has killed 6,000 people this year and cooled hopes of a full African Union peacekeeping force of 8,000 soldiers. So far, only 1,600 Ugandan troops have arrived, while other nations have repeatedly delayed their pledged deployments.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he does not believe a U.N. peacekeeping mission can be deployed, which Yusuf has asked for since taking office in October 2004.

However, Yusuf said Mogadishu was improving and he would return to the coastal capital that his government — with Ethiopian help — wrested from a militant Islamist movement in a lightning war nearly a year ago.

The insurgency and retaliatory strikes by government and allied forces have created what the United Nations calls Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 1 million people uprooted from their homes in the Horn of Africa country.

Yusuf’s government is the 14th attempt at establishing central rule in Somalia since warlords, including Yusuf, ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

At a press conference in Nairobi after his Reuters interview, Yusuf told reporters he was suffering from bronchitis, which his Italian doctor said was being treated with antibiotics.

Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Nairobi; Editing by Katie Nguyen and Mary Gabriel

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