Thousands attend Meles funeral


Tens of thousands of Ethiopians and at least 15 heads of state turned out today to pay their respects at the funeral of Meles Zenawi, the guerrilla leader turned economic reformer who died last month after more than two decades in power.

The prime minister's coffin, draped in the national flag and placed on a black carriage, moved slowly from his residence to the vast Meskel Square, in a procession that included a military band and religious dignitaries.

The coffin was set in front of the crowd waiting in the square, and the assembled priests, wearing the colourful robes of the country's Orthodox Tewahedo Church, intoned solemn prayers.

Mourners waved flags and some wept as they listened to speeches from their prime minister-designate, other African leaders and a senior US official.

Mr Meles, who was due to step down in 2015 at the end of his fourth term as prime minister, died at a hospital in Brussels aged 57. The authorities said he had died of an infection after receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment.

Silver-painted helicopters flew overhead in Mr Meles' honour, while members of elite army divisions stood guard, their red, blue and green berets marking the different units.

Heavy rain poured down as the cortege, flanked by top military officers, moved in procession to the Holy Trinity Cathedral for the funeral service and burial ceremony.

"He was a visionary, a great leader," said Abiy Yohannes, a university student who arrived at the square at dawn. "It is a great loss that we will feel for many years to come."

Mr Meles seized power from Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta in 1991 after a 17-year civil war in the Horn of Africa country, and pushed through reforms that gave Ethiopia one of the strongest growth rates in Africa.

He took a strong stand against Islamist militancy in the region, a position that won praise from Western powers, while suppressing political opponents at home - which did not.

Despite economic growth that barely fell below 8 per cent a year between 2004 and 2011, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and Mr Meles's opponents say his suppression of dissent held the country back.

Mr Meles's deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, was named as his successor, to some extent allaying concern that the diverse nation could fall apart and become unstable, and is due to be sworn in in the next few days.

"He has passed away, but ... we will strive to carry on his vision to transform the country," Mr Hailemariam said in a speech in Meskel Square. He said Mr Meles would eventually be interred in a mausoleum at a research centre and museum to be set up in his honour.