- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 29, 2014

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Zambian President Michael Sata has died after an illness, the Zambian government said Wednesday. The Cabinet held a meeting to discuss a political transition in the southern African nation in the wake of the president’s death.

Sata died shortly after 11 p.m. on Tuesday at London’s King Edward VII hospital, where he was being treated, Cabinet secretary Roland Msiska said in a statement.

Sata’s wife, Christine Kaseba, and his son, Mulenga Sata, were at the 77-year-old president’s side when he died, Msiska said. Mulenga Sata is the mayor of the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

“I urge all of you to remain calm, united and peaceful during this very difficult period,” Msiska said in an appeal to Zambians.

The Cabinet discussed plans for a political handover, a Zambian official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The vice president is Guy Scott, a white Zambian whose appointment in 2011 caused a stir in Zambia. Scott previously held the post of agriculture minister, and has also worked in Zambia’s finance ministry.

Rumors that Sata was deathly ill had gripped Zambia since the leader largely dropped out of public view months ago, and opposition groups criticized the government for declining to release details about his medical condition. On Sept. 19, Sata delivered an address at the opening of parliament in Lusaka, poking fun at speculation about his failing health.

“I haven’t died yet,” the Zambian president said at the time.

Earlier this year, Sata traveled to Israel on what officials called a “working holiday,” though there was widespread speculation that he went there for medical treatment. On Oct. 20, the Zambian government said Sata had left for a “medical check-up abroad,” without mentioning that he had gone to London.

Sata, a longtime opposition leader who became president in 2011, has been called “Mr. King Cobra” for his sharp-tongued remarks. He has had a mixed relationship with Chinese investors in Zambian mines and other infrastructure, criticizing them as exploitative but toning down his rhetoric after taking office.

Some critics say Sata became increasingly intolerant in the presidency. An opposition leader, Frank Bwalya, was acquitted this year of defamation charges after he compared Sata to a local potato whose name is slang for someone who doesn’t listen.

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