Eddie Adams / AP
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Zimbabwean officials on Tuesday dismissed reports that President Robert Mugabe was critically ill in Singapore, saying he was well and on vacation there with his family, and was expected to return home this week.
Mugabe is one of Africa's longest serving leaders and has ruled the former British colony in southern Africa since 1980. He is sharing power with political rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in a fragile coalition formed three years ago.
The 88-year-old president has been the subject of several health scares in recent years, with some reports saying he has prostate cancer, but in February interviews with state media he laughed off suggestions that he was seriously ill.
Media reports in Britain and elsewhere on Tuesday suggested Mugabe was ‘fighting for his life’.
However, two senior officials from Mugabe's ZANU-PF party angrily denied the reports. "The president is well and away on a private holiday to help his daughter prepare for post-graduate studies, but we are expecting him home this week," said one of the two officials, who declined to be named.
"But some sick and malicious people are spreading false stories about him being seriously ill while others are saying he is dead or dying out there," he added.
Asked whether the president had also used his 10-day visit to Singapore for a medical check-up, one of the officials said: "We are not going to be engaged over rumours, speculation and wishful thinking."
A Twitter account in the name of ZANU-PF appeared to defend Mugabe by saying the leader had merely gone shopping with his wife, although the account it is widely assumed to be a spoof.
Mugabe has made frequent visits to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
A terse Zimbabwean government statement saying a weekly cabinet meeting set for Tuesday had been postponed to Thursday had fed the rash of media speculation about the president's health. Mugabe usually chairs cabinet meetings.
Mugabe, who celebrated his 88th birthday on Feb. 21, was endorsed by his party as its presidential candidate for a general election he wants to be held before the end of this year despite opposition from his major political rivals.
Analysts say Mugabe will face a tough challenge convincing voters to extend his 32-year rule after a devastating economic crisis many blame on ZANU-PF.
Although ZANU-PF officials rally behind Mugabe in public, in private many want him to retire and pass the baton to a younger heir due to fears his advanced age may cost the party victory in the upcoming election.
This sentiment within ZANU-PF has intensified since reports, based on a June 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, that Mugabe is suffering from prostate cancer.
Reuters and msnbc.com's Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.