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* Rose from bush war fighter to towering political figure
* Oversaw Ethiopia's economic transformation
* Key Western ally in volatile Horn of Africa region
* Rights groups, opposition criticised strong leadership
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, Aug 21 (Reuters) - Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi led one of Africa's most populous nations for more than two decades, steering it along the path of economic growth while clamping down on dissent.
A towering figure in Africa's political landscape, Prime Minister Meles died late on Monday aged 57 at an overseas hospital where he had been recovering from an undisclosed illness for two months, state-run television said on Tuesday.
He was born Legesse Zenawi in 1955 in Adwa, the site of Ethiopia's most celebrated victory against colonial invaders Italy in 1896. He took the nom-de-guerre Meles as a tribute to Meles Tekle, a young activist killed by the government.
But the time Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of the Communist junta that ruled the country from 1974 to 1987, launched his Red Terror purge in 1977, Meles had ditched his medical studies and was fighting in the bush.
He was a rising figure in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that he helped found as a 20-year-old, which then aligned with other groups to form the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.
The EPRDF entered Addis Ababa in 1991, much to the amazement of the locals.
Meles led the country first as transitional president and later, after poorly contested elections in 1995, as prime minister of the renamed Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, winning renewed mandates in 2005 and 2010 in polls that rights groups said were rife with violations.
The West welcomed Africa's youngest leader enthusiastically, grateful for his overthrow of a communist regime and impressed with his urbane manner.
It also came to value him for the central role his country - home to one of Africa's biggest armies - played in regional and continental security.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said Meles was part of a "new generation" of African leaders and he was invited to join then British Prime Minister Tony Blair's crusading Commission for Africa.
At home, the EPRDF set about trying to pull Ethiopia out of poverty, pledging to drive growth and improve the lives of peasant farmers. It introduced a system of ethnic federalism, opening regional parliaments and giving Ethiopia's main ethnic groups the chance to govern the areas in which they dominate.
Under Meles' leadership, the Horn of Africa country also embarked on a mass of energy and infrastructure projects, while hospitals and schools throughout the country have surged ten-fold.
Officials expect economic growth of 11 percent for the 2011/2012 fiscal year that ended in June, thanks to rising agricultural output, the seventh consecutive fiscal year of growth. However, inflation remains stubbornly high, hitting 20 percent in July.
Meles forged close business ties with India and Turkey as well as Asian powerhouse China, which footed the $200 million bill for the sprawling, new headquarters of the African Union.
The former rebel has made key contributions to regional security, twice sending troops into Somalia to battle Islamist rebels, while Ethiopian peacekeepers have been deployed in several African hotspots such as Sudan's Darfur and Abyei regions.
But Meles' record of solid economic growth, poverty reduction and closer ties to the West has been coloured by a firm crackdown on dissent.
Following the disputed polls of 2005, Ethiopia rounded up almost the entire leadership of an opposition group that won an unprecedented number of seats in parliament and jailed them for life for treason.
In 2009 followed an anti-terror law, under which more than one hundred opposition figures have been arrested. The government insists it is tackling rebel groups that have links with al Qaeda and arch-foe Eritrea.
More than 10 journalists have also been charged under the law, according to the Committee to Protest Journalists. The group says Ethiopia is close to replacing Eritrea as the African country with the highest number of journalists behind bars.
Two Swedish journalists were jailed for 11 years on charges of entering the country illegally and aiding a rebel group.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, has slammed the verdicts, saying journalists, human rights defenders and critics were facing a "climate of intimidation".
Meles responded with trademark defiance, labelling the duo as "messengers boys of terror groups".
During the Group of Eight summit in Washington last May, Meles was interrupted soon after he started to speak: "You are a dictator! You have committed crimes against humanity!" a member of the audience said.
The bald, bespectacled strongman, visibly shocked at first, tried to continue talking before staring down, stony-faced.