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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — "I haven't died yet," the Zambian president said.
That's how Michael Sata poked fun at speculation about his failing health when he spoke on Sept. 19 at the opening of parliament in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. Rumors that Sata was deathly ill have gripped the southern African country since the leader largely dropped out of public view months ago.
The conjecture picked up again this week when 77-year-old Sata failed to give a scheduled address at the United Nations and police said doctors treated him in a New York hotel room. Opposition lawmakers have questioned whether Sata is fit to lead a country of 15 million people that enjoys robust economic growth but has a high level of poverty.
"The health of the president is entirely normal," Vice President Guy Scott said in parliament Friday. "It's untrue that he has perished or has died."
Mulenga Sata, who is Sata's son and Lusaka's mayor, said he spoke Friday morning to his father. The president is "well," Mulenga Sata said.
Michael Sata flew to New York to attend the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly. He did not address the 193-member world body as planned on Wednesday.
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. The Zambian government has not disclosed details of any ailments that Sata is suffering.
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.
Sata was in New York this week with wife Christine Kaseba, a doctor. Sata introduced her at the opening of parliament, crediting her with tough love.
"She has made me stay up to now," he said. "I haven't died yet."