Ethiopia's late leader Meles returns home

2012-08-22 10:05

Addis Ababa - Thousands of mourning Ethiopians turned out early on Wednesday as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's body arrived at Addis Ababa airport following his death in a Brussels hospital at the age of 57.

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

Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, who has also been foreign minister since 2010, will take over interim power, government spokesperson Bereket Simon said.

Meles died overnight Monday to Tuesday following a long illness. His wife Azeb Mesfin, dressed in black, was seen leaving the plane.

National mourning

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, said national television which broadcast live footage from Addis Ababa streets as the coffin passed slowly.

Several mourners carried photos of the late leader.

Ethiopia has declared a state of national mourning, but no date for the funeral has been set.

"Under the Ethiopian constitution the deputy prime minister will take the oath of office before parliament," the government spokesperson said. He expected the lawmakers to convene "as soon as possible".

Bereket said "everything is stable" in the country.

Meles, a regional strongman in the volatile Horn of Africa, was a former rebel who ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades.

He came to power in 1991 after toppling the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, set Ethiopia on a path of rapid growth and played a key role in mediating regional conflicts, but also drew criticism for cracking down on opponents and curtailing human rights.


US President Barack Obama led tributes to Meles whom he said 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.

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

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised his "exceptional leadership".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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.

More than 120 000 Jews of Ethiopian origin live in Israel.

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.

European Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly said Meles had died in Brussels, but the Ethiopian government said only that he had died abroad.

"Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed away yesterday evening at around midnight," said the government spokesperson on Tuesday, adding he had been "struggling to be healthy in the last year".

"He had been recuperating well, but suddenly something happened and he had to be rushed to the ICU (intensive care unit) and they couldn't keep him alive," he added.