French media says Gabon leader Bongo dies

PARIS Mon Jun 8, 2009 12:51am BST

1 of 2. Gabon's President Omar Bongo attends the opening of the 24th Africa-France summit in Cannes, southern France, in this February 15, 2007 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Patrick Kovarik/Pool/Files

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PARIS (Reuters) - Gabon's President Omar Bongo has died after 41 years in power in the central African country, French media said on Sunday, but the country's prime minister said he was unable to confirm the reports.

The 73-year-old checked into a clinic in Spain last month amid reports that he was suffering from cancer, fuelling speculation over the future of the former French colony, which has a well established oil industry.

There was no immediate comment from the hospital on Sunday.

Quoting a source close to Bongo's entourage, the website of French magazine Le Point reported on Sunday that Bongo had died.

But Gabon's Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong said he was surprised by the French media reports.

"If such a situation happens, I think and I know that the family of President Bongo would naturally inform me. This is not the case at the moment I am talking to you," Ndong told Gabonese television on Sunday evening.

Concerns over the health of Africa's longest-serving ruler intensified last month after he suspended his functions as head of the oil-producing state for the first time since taking power in 1967.

But Gabon's government said last month Bongo was resting in Spain after the death of his wife in March and that he would return home to resume his functions as head of state.

Reports that Bongo was ill had fuelled debates over who would take over and speculation there might be turmoil, as in Togo when long-time President Gnassingbe Eyadema died in 2005.

But Eurasia Group Middle East and Africa analyst Sebastian Spio-Garbrah says the fears are unfounded and Bongo's son, Defence Minister Ali Ben Bongo, was likely to take over.

"Despite widespread foreign investor worries ... an orderly secession managed by the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) will install Bongo's well-respected son ... or another close family member, to the presidency and avoid any messy succession crisis," he wrote in a research note last month.

In the event of the president's death, the constitution calls for Senate President Rose Francine Rogombe, a PDG ally, to step in as caretaker leader in charge of organising elections.

The prospect of turmoil in the case of the president's death has also been reduced by Bongo's long-term successes of minimising ethnic tensions in the country, analysts say.

Bongo nurtured close ties with former colonial power France, whose Total SA oil giant is one of the biggest investors in the country.

(Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; editing by Nick Tattersall and Janet McBride)

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