Gabon's presidency admitted for the first time on Sunday that President Omar Bongo, hospitalised for nearly three weeks in Saudi Arabia, is in a serious condition but said his health is improving.
The 59-year-old leader was taken to hospital in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 24 but his condition has now "greatly improved" and he is "recovering most of his functions," presidency spokesman Ike Ngouoni said.
Lack of official news -- along with memories of the secrecy-shrouded death of Bongo's father Omar Bongo in 2009 -- had sparked numerous rumours, including suggestions he was incapacitated or dead.
Following discomfort and "persistent vertigo... the first tests revealed bleeding which justified medical surgical care in a highly specialised sector," according to a medical bulletin from doctors treating Bongo, quoted by Ngouoni.
Ali Bongo "was treated with appropriate and thorough support that has so far significantly improved his general condition," it said.
A foreign source close to Bongo and his French-born wife Sylvia told AFP on Wednesday that Bongo had had a stroke.
'Encouraging' physical recovery
The Bongo family has governed the oil-rich West African nation for five decades and long maintained close ties with former colonial master France under a system known as "Francafrique".
Relations cooled after Ali Bongo was elected in 2009 following his father's death and French authorities launched a corruption investigation into the family's assets.
Gabon ranks 117 out of 180 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
"According to the medical team," Bongo is "gradually beginning a very encouraging phase of physical recovery," Ngouoni said without specifying Bongo's ailment.
The "head of state continues to perform his duties" and "the institutions of our republic are functioning perfectly in strict compliance with the constitution," the spokesman added.
Gabon's official media watchdog on Friday said it had suspended a newspaper for three months for an article saying the country was on "autopilot" because of Bongo's hospitalisation.
L'Aube (Dawn) newspaper had run a story headlined "Gabon on (very dangerous) autopilot" and suggested that Prime Minister Lucie Mboussou would be appointed interim president.
The paper's editor, Orca Boudiandza Mouelle, was also banned from working for six months.
Bongo rule for decades
Ali Bongo served as foreign and defence minister during his father's rule, and after his death was elected head of state in August 2009.
He was narrowly re-elected in 2016 after beating opposition challenger Jean Ping by a few thousand votes following a presidential poll marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud.
The opposition claimed the vote had been rigged and demanded a recount, which the country's constitutional court rejected.
The country has large oil, mineral and tropical timber resources, and its per capita national income is four times greater than that of most sub-Saharan nations.
But about a third of its population of 1.8 million still live below the poverty line -- the result, say experts, of inequality, poor governance and corruption.