Nelson Mandela was last night in hospital in South Africa after being airlifted from his isolated village home.
The 94-year-old former president was thought to be having tests in a military hospital in Pretoria.
Officials said there was no cause for alarm, saying he needed medical attention from time to time ‘which is consistent for his age’.
South African President Jacob Zuma said yesterday: ‘We wish Madiba [Mandela’s tribal name] all the best. The medical team is assured of our support as they look after and ensure the comfort of our beloved founding president of a free and democratic South Africa.’
But there was widespread concern about this latest health scare – the third since Mr Mandela retired from public life in 2004.
He was treated for a respiratory infection in January 2011, and last February had a procedure for abdominal problems.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner has not been seen in public since the celebrations at the end of the football World Cup in Johannesburg two years ago.
Mr Mandela has been frail for some time and visitors to his home have said his memory is failing. He was last photographed in August with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his home.
Mr Mandela lives quietly at home in the Eastern Cape village of Qunu, where he was born. His two-storey house on the outskirts of Qunu is known to contain medical equipment for use in an emergency.
The medical preparations were made for him when the house underwent renovation and refurbishment during the past year in readiness for Mr Mandela’s complete withdrawal from public life.
A family friend told The Mail on Sunday last night: ‘His trip to hospital this time appears to be more serious than on previous occasions, as he is clearly in need of more help than is available at the house.
Any journey for the former president creates concern as Qunu is so far off the beaten track. The tiny hamlet of rolling hills, traditional mud huts, a church and school, is more than 25 miles from the nearest airport at Mthatha.
Mr Mandela will have been taken by road to the airport where a military plane would have been standing by ready for the hour-and-a-half flight to Pretoria.
Rumours were circulating yesterday that a military plane that crashed in the Drakens-berg Mountains in severe weather conditions on Wednesday had been carrying a medical team and medicines for Mr Mandela.
The Douglas C-47 Dakota came down in mountains near Ladysmith, killing all 11 passengers and crew.
The trade union of the South African Security Forces put out a report on the crash, claiming a connection to Mr Mandela’s illness, however this was later denied by the country’s Defence Department.
He became an icon of the struggle against apartheid during a 27-year prison sentence in Cape Town’s notorious Robben Island, before his release in 1990.
In prison he had remained the moral leader of the African National Congress – an organisation banned by South Africa’s racist apartheid government – smuggling out letters of encouragement and support to his followers from his cell, which is now visited by tourists from all over the world.
In recent years he has raised millions for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Foundation to improve the lives of deprived children in South Africa.