ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who during 21 years of repressive rule transformed his nation into a regional powerhouse, has died of an unspecified illness, depriving the United States of a key ally in the battle against al-Qaida-affiliated rebels in Somalia.
News of Mr. Meles' death in Brussels late Monday broke here early Tuesday after weeks of rumors surrounding the 57-year-old prime minister's prolonged absence. His ruling party moved to quash speculation of a power struggle over who would succeed him, and the capital remained calm. Government spokesman Bereket Simon said Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn would serve as the country's leader until 2015 elections.
Mr. Meles' Tigray rebel movement took power in 1991 from what had been a Soviet-backed regime. Over the next two decades, Mr. Meles aligned his country with the United States and became a major influence in the volatile Horn of Africa and the wider African continent as well. The African Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and the capital under Meles became a hub for conferences and events made possible by a Chinese-fueled, state-led construction boom.
His death is likely to have an immediate impact on conflicts in Somalia and between Sudan and South Sudan, both ongoing crises that are near the top of U.S. policy priorities in Africa.
Ethiopian troops late last year invaded Somalia, and Kenya — which also invaded Somalia last year — is negotiating with Ethiopia on how Somalia will be governed if and when al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate, is driven from Kismayo, its last stronghold in the country's south.
But it is Sudan and South Sudan where Mr. Meles' personal engagement might be irreplaceable. He is the only regional leader to maintain strong relations with both Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. Meles often personally mediated meetings between the two foes.