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APIA, Samoa (November 1, 1998 - AFP)---Government officials Sunday were declining to make any statements on the health of Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana, who arrived back here a day earlier from a month of medical treatment in New Zealand.

Eyewitnesses at his arrival told a local newspaper he appeared to have suffered severe weight loss.

Deputy Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi refused to comment on 74-year-old Tofilau's condition, but confirmed he was resting at his official residence.

Police are guarding the gates.

"I usually give him a day's rest when he returns from an overseas trip before putting in an appearance," Tuilaepa told the local press.

However, it has been common practice in the past for an official party to greet the prime minister at the airport and for the speeches to be aired over the local television station.

This has not happened over the last six months.

Tuilaepa said the prime minister's doctor from New Zealand would be visiting in December to carry out another check-up.

Reports of the prime minister's seriously deteriorating health have amplified speculation of a leadership challenge which will test the unity of the ruling Human Rights Protection Party.

Head of State Malietoa Tanumafili II is empowered under the constitution to select a new leader from a member of parliament who commands the confidence of the other members.

Malietoa has only twice exercised his constitutional right, with the appointment of the late Tupua Tamasese Lealofi in 1975 when the then prime minister Fiame Mata‘afa Mulinu‘u II died.

Former prime minister Tupuola Efi received a similar nod when then prime minister Va‘ai Kolone lost his seat in a court ruling against election violations.

However, the latest Standing Orders of Parliament have attempted to strip that power from the head of state and outline the Clerk of the House informs Malietoa of who the next prime minister should be.

Tuilaepa, the prime minister's understudy since the start of his long reign, is the favorite as next leader, however cabinet ministers have been politicking and pulling in their ranks.

The challenge to Tuilaepa was once thought to come from the Minister of Health Misa Telefoni Retzlaff but Misa lost public support after the two had a row through the media last year and the prime minister requested Misa to apologize.

According to reports, contenders for the leadership could come from Minister of Education Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa, the daughter of Samoa's founding leader, Fiame.

Also mentioned is the Minister of Lands, Survey and Environment Tuala Sale Tagaloa.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz WWW: http://www.afp.com/english/

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