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Former South African president Nelson Mandela is seen in a July 18, 2012 file photo, as he celebrates his birthday with family in Qunu, South Africa.Schalk van Zuydam/The Associated Press

The man who led the liberation of South Africa is entering his final battle. A sudden decline in the health of Nelson Mandela has left him in critical condition in hospital.

President Jacob Zuma said Monday that doctors are doing everything possible to ensure the 94-year-old's well-being and comfort on his 17th day in a hospital in the capital, Pretoria.

When the official statement broke on Sunday night, after two weeks of vague and limited information, the tone was blunt and candid. Abandoning its soothing phrases and adopting the word "critical" for the first time, the government confirmed that the health of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero had taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

Gloomy reports had been leaking out of Mr. Mandela's hospital room since he was rushed to the Pretoria hospital on June 8 with a recurring lung infection, but the government had angrily denied those reports, insisting instead that Mr. Mandela was stable and recovering.

The abrupt shift in tone came from Mr. Zuma, who visited South Africa's first democratic president in hospital on Sunday evening, accompanied by the deputy president of his ruling African National Congress.

"They were briefed by the medical team, who informed them that the former president's condition had become critical over the past 24 hours," the President's office said.

"The doctors are doing everything possible to get his condition to improve and are ensuring that Madiba is well looked-after and is comfortable," Mr. Zuma said in the statement, referring to him by his affectionate clan name. "He is in good hands."

Mr. Zuma said he "appealed to the nation and the world to pray for Madiba, the family and the medical team that is attending to him during this difficult time."

A similar statement by the ANC on Sunday night said it was "concerned" at the deterioration in Mr. Mandela's condition.

In previous statements since his latest admission to hospital, the government had always officially described Mr. Mandela as being in "serious but stable" condition. Last week, the government said his heath was improving.

Mr. Mandela, who became the first democratic president of South Africa in 1994 after decades of apartheid rule, is a beloved icon in this country, but most South Africans have been slowly coming to terms with his deteriorating health. Some of Mr. Mandela's friends have been urging his family to "let him go."

The former president, who left office in 1999, has been in hospital four times this year with recurrences of the lung problems that have plagued him for years. He suffered tuberculosis during his long imprisonment when he worked in a quarry on Robben Island.

Over the past 16 days, the government has provided very few details of Mr. Mandela's health, provoking a debate in South Africa over whether more information should be disclosed.

A report by CBS News this weekend said Mr. Mandela had been "unresponsive for days" and was not opening his eyes. Family members were discussing whether to withdraw treatment, the report said.

Meanwhile, South Africans have been outraged by revelations of an ambulance breakdown that left Mr. Mandela stranded on a highway in the pre-dawn hours of June 8 as he was being rushed to hospital. The opposition is demanding an investigation into the debacle.

The government confirmed on the weekend that a military ambulance carrying Mr. Mandela had engine problems and was stuck on the highway from his Johannesburg home to the Pretoria hospital.

Mr. Mandela was kept alive by medical staff and transferred on a stretcher to another military ambulance after the roadside delay of about 40 minutes on the highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Officials insisted that Mr. Mandela "suffered no harm" as a result of the ambulance breakdown. "All care was taken to ensure that the former president Mandela's medical condition was not compromised by the unforeseen incident," said a statement by the president's office. The statement also denied media reports that Mr. Mandela had suffered cardiac arrest on June 8.

But the reassurances did not placate South Africans, who reacted with dismay and anger on social media on Sunday as local newspapers reported new details of the ambulance fiasco.

"Mandela's night of horror," blared a headline in one leading newspaper, City Press, on Sunday.

Mr. Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, was in the ambulance with him and was "frantic" after the engine breakdown, the newspaper said. It quoted cardiologists as saying that the delay could have jeopardized Mr. Mandela's health.

The opposition Democratic Alliance called for an official inquiry into the incident. "The fact is that the South African Military Health Service let the country down," said DA parliamentarian David Maynier. "What happened is symptomatic of the poor state of the Military Health Service."

He quoted a defence commission report in 2010 that cited "serious problems" in health services in the military, including a shortage of doctors and ambulances and inadequate equipment. The country has to be "absolutely sure" that the ambulance problems will not pose any "future risk" to Mr. Mandela's health, he said.