Reports that Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa died in a hospital on 3 July in the French capital of Paris, have been denied by the country's information minister.
Government sources told IRIN that Mwanawasa had died, but Zambia's Information Minister, Mike Mulongoti, said in a statement on 3 July that he was alive, despite widespread reports he had died in Paris.
Mwanawasa suffered a stroke on the eve of the African Union (AU) summit in Egypt and was admitted to a private hospital on 29 June. He was flown to a clinic in Paris on 2 July in a semi-comatose state.
According to the current Zambian constitution, which is being reviewed, should a serving president die in office or become incapacitated, "an election to the office of President shall be held in accordance with Article 34 within ninety days from the date of the office becoming vacant."
Speculation surrounding Mwanawasa's death will increase fears of political turmoil in his ruling party, and that the opposition will capitalise on this, political analysts told IRIN.
"What we foresee happening now is a lot of bickering and fighting within the [ruling] MMD [Movement for Multiparty Democracy]. People will be fighting each other and trying to position themselves. Even those in politically appointed [by the president] offices are very much unsettled at the moment," a political analyst, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
"The opposition, on the other hand, is also looking at how they can benefit from this misfortune, so this issue can actually destabilise the entire country," the analyst said.
Mwanawasa, who was also the current chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) of 14 member states, survived a near-fatal car accident in 1991, which left him with speech impediments, and suffered a mild stroke ahead of Zambia's 2006 elections.
His health was a major issue in the campaign of his opponent, Michael Sata, 71, who also spoke out fiercely against Chinese investment in the country, while expressing support for Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe.
Mwanawasa won the presidential election with 42 percent of the vote to Sata's 29 percent, but the opposition Patriotic Front party secured the parliamentary seats in the capital, Lusaka, and the country's economic heartland, Copperbelt Province in the bitterly contested 2006 elections.
A critic of Zimbabwe
Mwanawasa, together with the past and current presidents of Botswana, was one of the first SADC leaders to openly criticise Mugabe's policies.
At the AU summit Botswana called for Zimbabwe's suspension from both the AU and SADC. "Botswana's position is that the outcome of these elections [in Zimbabwe] does not confer legitimacy on the government of President Mugabe," Botswana's Vice-President Mompati Merafhe said in a statement.
|In our considered view it therefore follows that the representatives of the current 'government' in Zimbabwe should be excluded from attending SADC and AU meetings|
"In our considered view it therefore follows that the representatives of the current 'government' in Zimbabwe should be excluded from attending SADC and AU meetings."
And, in what was seen as a criticism of South African President Thabo Mbeki in his role as the SADC-appointed mediator between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic change, Merafhe said: "It is also Botswana's strong view that the mediation process must treat both parties as equals."
Ian Khama assumed the Botswana presidency on 1 April, but his predecessor, Festus Mogae, told a farewell rally in his honour, held by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, "Let me advise those leaders in similar circumstances: leave when the time for you to leave comes, and you will be embraced with love by your people."
The AU summit, which was overshadowed by the Zimbabwe crisis, agreed in a resolution to maintain Mbeki as mediator "to encourage President Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai to initiate dialogue with a view to promoting peace, stability."
Tsvangirai reportedly told local media at his home in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, that the MDC rejected the AU's decision to maintain Mbeki as the sole mediator.
"Our reservations about the mediation process under President Mbeki are well known ... Unless the mediation team is expanded ... and the mediation mechanism is changed, no meaningful progress can be made toward resolving the Zimbabwe crisis. If this does not happen, then the MDC will not be part of the mediation process."