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Gabon President dies

Gabon President Omar Bongo Ondimba, whose reign as Africa’s longest-serving leader was clouded by corruption claims, died Monday in a Spanish hospital, his prime minister said.

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He was 73.

“At 2:30 pm, the medical team informed me, as well as the officials and members of the family present, that the president of the republic, head of state Omar Bongo Ondimba had just passed away following a heart attack,” said the statement from Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong.

Bongo, who had ruled the former French colony in west Africa since 1967, was understood to have been treated in a clinic in Barcelona for cancer.

The statement from the prime minister came hours after several reports in both France and Spain that Bongo had died, which were initially denied by the Gabonese authorities.

Rise to power

Bongo came to power in 1967 with French support and ruled over a state that grew rich on its abundant oil while most of the 1.5 million population remained poor.

His death has already raised fears of a power vaccuum and the initial reports of his death on Sunday night prompted many Libreville residents to dash to filling stations to stock up on fuel.

Most bars, restaurants and shops that normally stay open late had closed.

Police and troops were posted at strategic points across Libreville on Monday, while residents said that Internet access was cut, depriving them of international news.

French inquiry

Bongo’s last months were marked by a row with Paris over a French inquiry into luxury properties he had bought in the country and claims by anti-corruption activists they were acquired with embezzled state funds.

A French court decision in February to freeze Bongo’s bank accounts added fuel to the fire and his government accused France of waging a “campaign to destabilise” the country.

The assets freeze was part of a probe to find out if Bongo, his ally President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema had plundered state coffers.

The leaders denied any wrongdoing. Bongo also announced in March that he was temporarily suspending his duties in order to rest and mourn his 45-year-old wife Edith Lucie, daughter of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who died in Morocco after a long illness.

Gabon was the first African country to host French oil giant Elf in the 1960s, from where the company operated as a state within a state, serving as a base for French military and espionage activities.

The Paris trial in 2003 of former Elf chairman Loik Le Floch-Prigent revealed the extent of the corruption and shady dealings in Gabon’s booming oil business under Bongo.

“Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel,” is how Bongo described the relationship between Paris and its former colony. But relations deteriorated due to the French court decision to probe Bongo’s Paris properties.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government is also considering dismantling its 1,000-strong army base in Libreville as part of a broad shake-up of its military presence in Africa.

Bongo opted to seek medical care in Spain instead of Paris, where his predecessor Leon M’Ba died in 1967.

Future ruler of Gabon

Favourite to succeed him is his 50-year-old son Ali Ben Bongo, although observers said nothing was certain after such a long rule and in a country with many ethnic groups to satisfy.

Ali Ben Bongo, a former foreign minister, was reshuffled by his father in 1999 to head the crucial defence ministry, a move seen as an attempt to snuff out any would-be coups but also to shore up his possible succession.