Meles Zenawi funeral: thousands of Ethiopians attend long-serving PM burial
Thousands of Ethiopians are attending the state funeral in Addis Ababa of country’s long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died last month.
Meles Zenawi’s flag-draped coffin was carried in a procession from his palace to the city’s Meskel Square, where a solemn religious ceremony began.
Dozens of foreign leaders and dignitaries, including at least 20 African presidents, were present.
Meles Zenawi died at the age of 57 in Brussels, following a long illness.
He came to power in 1991 and was credited for bringing development and growth to Ethiopia.
But critics say this was achieved at the cost of respect for human rights.
The state funeral – Ethiopia’s first in more than 80 years – began in Meskel Square after a journey of about an hour-and-a-half from Meles Zenawi’s official residence, the Grand National Palace.
The coffin was accompanied by hundreds of mourners, including Meles Zenawi’s widow Azeb Mesfin, who was seen being comforted by officials.
The coffin will later be taken for burial at the city’s Holy Trinity Cathedral.
The prime minister was a former Marxist rebel and not publicly religious, but was brought up as an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.
In contrast to the secrecy traditionally surrounding the deaths of Ethiopian leaders, the ceremony is being broadcast live, and huge screens have been erected in cities and villages around the country.
The last Ethiopian leader to be honored with a state funeral was the Empress Zauditu in 1930.
African presidents such as South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame are attending the funeral, as well as several prominent international figures including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete laid a wreath next to Meles Zenawi’s coffin on Saturday.
He paid tribute to Meles Zenawi’s “charm, his intellect, his passion for Africa’s development”, adding that he was “a kind of leader that you can trust”.
Paul Kagame honored Meles Zenawi as “a gallant fighter for freedom not only for Ethiopia and Ethiopian people, but also Africa”.
Also attending is Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on several counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the Darfur conflict.
Meles zenawi became a dominant figure in the region after toppling toppling dictator Mengistu Hailemariam 21 years ago.
He ordered Ethiopian troops to intervene against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, mediated in the conflict in Sudan and South Sudan, and took a leading position in the African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa.
Meles Zenawi will be succeeded by his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, a relatively little-known politician from the south of Ethiopia.
Hailemariam Desalegn will formally take over as prime minister after Meles Zenawi’s funeral, and will serve until elections in 2015.
Some observers have voiced fears about the political transition.
The Brussels-based think tank, the Crisis Group, has warned that Hailemariam Desalegn will lead a weaker government that will face mounting grievances along ethnic and religious lines.
Meles Zenawi died suddenly from an infection on 20 August while being treated in hospital in Brussels.
He had not been seen in public for weeks before his death was announced, and there had been increasingly intense speculation about his health.
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