NAIROBI (Reuters) - Tanzania's President John Magufuli, one of Africa's most prominent coronavirus sceptics, has died aged 61, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said on Wednesday after a more than two-week absence from public life that led to speculation about his health.

She said he died from the heart disease that had plagued him for a decade. She said burial arrangements were under way and announced 14 days of mourning and the flying of flags at half staff. State television broadcast mournful and religious songs.

Magufuli, had not been seen in public since Feb. 27, sparking rumours that he had contracted COVID-19. Officials denied on March 12 that he had fallen ill and on Monday the vice president urged Tanzanians not to listen to rumours from outside the country and said it was normal for a human being to be checked for the flu or fever..

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“Dear Tanzanians, it is sad to announce that today 17 March 2021 around 6 p.m. we lost our brave leader, President John Magufuli who died from heart disease at Mzena hospital in Dar es Salaam where he was getting treatment," the vice president said on state broadcaster TBC.

He was Tanzania's first president to die while in office.

Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said on Friday that he had spoken to Magufuli, and blamed the narrative of the president's ailment on some "hateful" Tanzanians living abroad.

Tundu Lissu, Magufuli's main rival in the October election when the president won a second five-year term, had suggested Tanzania's leader had been flown to Kenya for treatment for COVID-19 and then moved to India in a coma.

After the death was announced, opposition leader Zitto Kabwe said he had spoken to Vice President Hassan to offer condolences for Magufuli's death. "The nation will remember him for his contribution to the development of our country," Kabwe said in a statement published on Twitter.

HASSAN WOULD BE FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENTAccording to Tanzania's Constitution, Vice President Hassan, 61, should assume the presidency for the remainder of the five-year term that Magufuli began serving last year after winning a second term. She would be the East African nation's first female president.

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Born in the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, Hassan studied economics in Britain, worked for the U.N.'s World Food Programme and then held various government posts prior to becoming Tanzania's first female vice president in 2015.

Hassan said Magufuli was admitted on March 6 to Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute for heart problems and discharged the next day. A week later he felt bad and was rushed to Mzena hospital where he was getting treatment under supervision of doctors from the cardiac institute, she said.

In Dar es Salaam, the country's commercial capital with more than two million residents, the streets were empty when news of Magufuli's death was announced just before midnight.

"I remember him since his days when he was minister of works and then he became president, a president who worked hard that even if you didn't agree with him it got to a point that you agreed with him. I appreciated him, he did a really good job," one man, Patrice Tarimo, said in Dar es Salaam after hearing the news.

'THE BULLDOZER'

Nicknamed "The Bulldozer" because of his reputation for pushing through policies despite opposition, Magufuli frustrated the World Health Organization (WHO) during the pandemic by playing down the threat from COVID-19, saying god and remedies such as steam inhalation would protect Tanzanians.

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The former chemistry teacher had mocked coronavirus tests, denounced vaccines as part of a Western conspiracy to take Africa's wealth, and opposed mask-wearing and social distancing.

Tanzania stopped reporting coronavirus data in May last year when it had reported 509 cases and 21 deaths, according to the WHO, which has urged the government to be more transparent.

He was re-elected for a second term in 2020, winning 84% of the vote in an election the opposition said was marred by irregularities and whose results it rejected.

(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by William Maclean and Howard Goller)