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Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika 'very critical' after heart attack

Bingu wa Mutharika, the president of Malawi, is being airlifted to South Africa for treatment after suffering a cardiac arrest this morning.

Bingu wa Mutharika heart attackEnlarge
President Bingu wa Mutharika in Malawi's capital Lilongwe in July 2011. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika is being airlifted to South Africa for emergency treatment after suffering a heart attack, according to reports.

The 78-year-old leader is in a coma, and in "very critical" condition, an unnamed minister told Reuters

A statement read on state radio and TV late Thursday said Mutharika would be traveling to South Africa to receive treatment, but gave no mention on what was wrong, the Associated Press reported.

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According to the BBC, Mutharika received treatment in the intensive care unit of a clinic in the capital, Lilongwe, where several family and cabinet members gathered to be by his side.

He collapsed during a meeting this morning, local newspaper the Nyasa Times reported.

Reuters quoted a hospital source as saying he was still unconscious.

Under Malawi's constitution, the vice president – currently Joyce Banda – must take over if the president is too ill to serve, according to the Nyasa Times

That scenario would represent a "huge shake-up" in Malawian politics, said the BBC's correspondent, since Mutharika expelled Banda from his party in 2010 after they dramatically fell out.

Banda has asked Malawians to pray for Mutharika's quick recovery, Agence France-Presse reported, citing local media reports.

"When I first heard the state president had been taken ill, I quickly wished him quick recovery," she said.

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Mutharika has been president of Malawi since 2004.

He faced violent protests against his rule last year, in which at least 18 demonstrators died. Last month, Mutharika accused Western donors of "conspiring" with civil society activists to oppose his leadership.

The claim came a year after Britain's ambassador to Malawi accused Mutharika of "becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism," in a leaked embassy cable that prompted Malawi's government to expel the diplomat. Britain subsequently suspended aid to Malawi, which the UN ranks as one of the world's poorest countries.

The Guardian wrote in February that Malawi had "echoes of Zimbabwe, from an economy in freefall to rumours of pro-regime youth militias and a toxic political climate," and accused Mutharika of "using bellicose rhetoric reminiscent of his friend Robert Mugabe."

Malawi's next presidential election is scheduled for 2014, when Mutharika is due to step down. 

Some have been expecting him to push the vote back, according to the Guardian, while others suspected he would hand power over to his brother, Peter Mutharika, who is currently foreign minister.

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