ADDIS ABABA, Sept 2 – The flag-draped coffin of Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrived on Sunday for the start of the first state funeral staged for a leader of the Horn of Africa nation in more than 80 years.
Followed by thousands of mourners dressed in black the coffin had slowly processed through the capital from the National Palace to the vast Meskel Square, where the ceremony then began, an AFP reporter said.
The coffin arrived on top of a horse-drawn carriage adorned with white flowers and pictures of Meles — who died last month aged 57 — as a boy and young man.
Family members dressed in black arrived behind the carriage, many in tears, while several African heads of state and foreign dignitaries gathered on a stage.
Religious leaders from Ethiopia’s Christian Orthodox Church, dressed in flowing embroidered robes and carrying red and gold velvet umbrellas, began prayers for the giant crowd.
Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who will take over government until national elections in 2015, is also attending the funeral.
Senior officials from China, the European Union and the United States were also expected.
The funeral ceremony will later move to the capital’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, where Meles will be buried.
Meles died in a Brussels hospital on August 20 after an extended illness. He had not been seen in public for two months, spurring rumours about his health. The leader of the Horn of Africa nation took power in 1991 after toppling dictator Mengistu Hailemariam.
He had remained at helm of Ethiopia — a relatively stable country in the volatile Horn of Africa region — ever since. But while he was credited with bringing about widespread economic growth, rights groups criticised him for what they said was a crackdown on opposition groups and journalists.
His successor Desalegn will be sworn in after Meles is buried, although no date has been fixed. He is a relatively unknown politician who hails from the south, unlike many of the country’s political elite who are from the north.
While Ethiopia has hosted a series of state funerals in recent decades — including that of popular musician Tilahun Gessesse in 2009 — the last leader to be so honoured was Empress Zawditu in 1930.
Ethiopia’s last emperor Haile Selassie, who was murdered in 1975 by coup leaders, is also buried at Holy Trinity Cathedral.
The former rebel turned regional strongman took power in 1991 after toppling dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, remaining at the helm of Ethiopia — a relatively stable country in the volatile Horn of Africa region — until his death.
But while he was credited with bringing about widespread economic growth, rights groups criticised him for what they said was a crackdown on opposition groups and journalists.