Tongans mourn as late king comes home

2012-03-26 11:01

Nuku'alofa - Thousands of sombre Tongans, swathed in black, lined the Pacific island nation's roads on Monday to welcome home the body of their late king, an eccentric reformer who died in Hong Kong last week.

The impoverished nation's new monarch, King Tupou VI, accompanied his late brother King George Tupou V home on a China Southern Airbus A330 that touched down in Nuku'alofa at about 13:30 (local time), AFP reporters witnessed.

The late monarch's casket, draped in the royal standard, was carried off the jet by royal guards from the Tongan Defence service, while the new sovereign emerged from the aircraft in a black suit, accompanied by other family members.

School girls from a boarding school who had formed a guard of honour, silently bowed their heads as the 63-year-old former king's coffin was carried away from the jet, followed by members of the royal family.

"He is our king and everybody here in Tonga feels sorry," schoolteacher Alenga Moala'eua Ika said as officials and foreign dignitaries awaited the solemn homecoming.

Thousands of school children wearing black armbands and ribbons lined the 30km route the dead king's cortege was due to take back to his palace where he will lie in state until his lavish funeral on Tuesday.

Businesses closed

The king's body will be displayed in the throne room for a day until a procession of 150 pallbearers carry him to the royal tombs, where his ancestors have been laid since 1893, on an ornate platform for the funeral.

Buildings across the capital, Nuku'alofa, were adorned with black and purple bunting and thousands of mourners, all wearing black, waited for hours in the beating sun to pay their respects.

Shops, businesses and schools were closed across the nation as a sign of respect.

Tonga has declared an official period of mourning until June 19 for the dead monarch, who has been succeeded by his 52 year-old younger brother, the former Crown Prince Tupouto'a Lavaka.

The former king took over after his father passed away in 2006, and his death did not come as a complete shock to Tongans after his treatment for cancer last year.

But many have remembered that the Oxford-educated monarch, who had a penchant for wearing a monocle and grand uniforms, saw the need for reform, such as his moves to decisively end 165 years of feudal rule.