May 7, 2009 / 11:34 AM / 11 years ago

Gabon's Bongo suspends activities to mourn wife

* Lawyer poised to assume caretaker role * Bongo targeted by French assets probe

LIBREVILLE, May 7 (Reuters) - Gabonese President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest serving leader, suspended his functions as head of state on Thursday to mourn his late wife, who died in March after a long illness.

It is the first time Bongo has suspended his activities since he began ruling the oil-producing country in 1967.

Bongo, 73, has faced mounting speculation about the state of his own health and has been hospitalised for treatment at least twice in recent months.

He is also one of three African presidents with close ties to France who have been targeted by a French judicial inquiry into their assets, initiated after a complaint filed by an anti-corruption group.

“This long trial and cruel loss have deeply marked the president of the republic,” a statement read out on national television said.

It did not specify how long the suspension would last but said that if needed, Rose Francine Rogombe, a 66-year-old lawyer in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), would take on a caretaker role.

Citing a 2007 police inquiry that found that the ruling families in Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea had acquired luxury homes in France and cars worth tens of millions of euros, Transparency International alleged these assets were bought with embezzled public money.

The presidents deny any wrongdoing. (Writing by Mark John; editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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