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Ethiopians mourn leader's death

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The body of Meles Zenawi, the late Ethiopian prime minister, has returned to Addis Ababa, with thousands of mourners gathering on the streets to pay their respects.

Meles, 57, died in a Belgian hospital just before midnight on Monday after contracting an infection, authorities said.

A military band played as the coffin, draped in an Ethiopian flag, was taken on Wednesday from the Ethiopian Airlines flight, a ceremony also attended by political, military and religious leaders as well as diplomats.

His wife Azeb Mesfin, dressed in black, was seen leaving the plane.

Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister, 47, who has also been foreign minister since 2010, will take over interim power, Bereket Simon, government spokesman, said.

"Under the Ethiopian constitution the deputy prime minister will take the oath of office before parliament," he said.

He expected the parliamentarians to convene "as soon as possible".

Bereket said "everything is stable" in the country.

Lying in state

The coffin was taken to the prime minister's official residence at the national palace where Meles' body will lie in state until the funeral, according to national television which broadcast live footage from Addis Ababa streets as the coffin passed slowly.

Meles was a former rebel who ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades.

He came to power in 1991 after toppling the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, set Ethiopia on a path of rapid growth and played a key role in mediating regional conflicts.

However, he also drew criticism for cracking down on opponents and curtailing human rights.

World leaders offered high praise for Meles. Barack Obama, the US president, said Meles deserved "recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia's development, particularly his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia's poor".

He said Meles had earned his own personal admiration "for his desire to lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty" through his efforts to improve food security following a meeting at the G8 in May.

International tributes

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said she was "saddened" by Meles' death and expressed confidence "that Ethiopia will peacefully navigate the political transition according to its constitution".

Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, praised his "exceptional leadership".

David Cameron, UK prime minister, hailed Meles as "an inspirational spokesman for Africa".

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, called Meles "a true friend" of Israel and "presented his condolences to the Ethiopian people", his office said.

"Zenawi was loved in his country. He was also a true friend of Israel.

During his mandate, Ethiopia became one of Israel's closest friends," he said.

Meles, a key Western ally in a region home to al-Qaeda-linked groups, had not been seen in public since the G20 summit in Mexico in June.

Meles was regularly singled out as one of the continent's worst human rights predators, and Amnesty International, the UK-based rights watchdog, called on the country's new leaders to end his government's "ever-increasing repression".

Human rights abuse

Human Rights Watch called for the next administration to repeal a much-criticised 2009 anti-terrorism law, under which several opposition figures and journalists, including two Swedes, have been jailed for lengthy terms.

Diplomats and analysts in Addis Ababa say it is unclear how the government has been run since Meles was reported to have been admitted to hospital in June.

Ethiopia faces several internal threats, including the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, fighting for greater autonomy in the southeastern ethnic Somali region. The group said it hoped Meles' death "may usher (in) a new era of stability and peace".

Meles was credited with Ethiopia's economic boom in the past decade, with growth shooting from 3.8 per cent in the 1990s to 10 per cent in 2010.

On paper, his government fostered a policy of ethnic federalism, devolving significant powers to regional, ethnically based authorities, but central control remains firmly in the hands of the ruling party.

His death also leaves a major power gap in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time last year after a US-backed invasion in 2006 and Ethiopia is supporting the fight against Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab has said it is celebrating the "uplifting news".

Meles's death could also potentially see changes in the relationship with Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 before the two drifted into a bitter 1998-2000 border war in which tens of thousands died.

Eritrea has so far made no comment on his death.


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