CONAKRY, Dec 26 – Guinea paid its final respects on Friday to late dictator Lansana Conte as the military junta that seized control in the wake of his death planned a charm offensive to gain international legitimacy.
Supporters and even critics of the veteran strongman, who also took power in a coup and ruled for 24 years, were among thousands taking part in funeral ceremonies in Conakry.
Among the mourners were the presidents of Guinea’s neighbours, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast and Joao Bernardo Vieira of Guinea-Bissau.
The top officials of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, Jean Ping and Mohammed Ibn Chambas, were also present along with civil and military officials, and Conte’s wives and children.
Despite frequently denouncing Conte for "pillaging" the country, trade union leaders were among those paying respect with messages of condolence to his family.
But Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, the junta head who now styles himself president, could not be seen as the white coffin, draped with Guinea’s red, yellow and green flag and escorted by men of the presidential guard, arrived at the parliament building.
Following speeches of tribute the coffin was borne to the national stadium for another ceremony for ordinary Guineans in front of a capacity crowd of more than 30,000.
It was to be taken later to a mosque and then to Conte’s village of Lansanaya, around 120 kilometers (75 miles) north-west of Conakry, for burial.
Beset by calls from abroad to return the country to civilian rule and stage elections, Camara has invited foreign envoys to meet with him on Saturday "to reassure the international community."
The military junta, in a statement read on national radio, said it would first hold an "informational meeting" at 1000 GMT with "representatives of civil society, political parties, religious faiths and unions."
A second meeting would take place at noon (1200 GMT) for representatives of the United Nations, European Union and African Union and the Group of Eight leading industralised countries.
The coup has met with widespread international criticism, particularly of Camara’s decision to rule out elections for at least two years.
In a new statement Friday, former colonial power France urged Guinea to organise free elections within six months "so that the people of Guinea can freely express its will."
Foreign ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said the French ambassador to Conakry would attend Saturday’s meeting in France’s capacity as current president of the European Union.
The United States has also demanded an immediate return to civilian rule in the country of 10 million people.
Camara on Thursday won the allegiance of Conte’s prime minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare, who addressed him as "Mr President" and told the coup leader that he and his ministers were ready to serve the junta.
Camara, who has already appointed a military-dominated governing council in place of the civilian government, told Souare that he could help him run the country but left no doubt who was now in charge.
"Yesterday, you were in power, today it’s our turn," he said.
Camara assured Souare of his safety and told the prime minister that military rule was only temporary.