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Ethiopia mourns amid political handover preparations

Ethiopians attend funeral of the patriarch of Ethiopia's Orthodox Church while mourning the death of powerful PM Meles Zenawi whose funeral date is yet to be known

AFP , Thursday 23 Aug 2012
Ethiopia
The body of Meles Zenawi arrives at the Addis Ababa International Airport, Ethiopia Wednesday, (Photo: AP).
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Ethiopians mourned on Thursday the passing of both their political and religious leaders, as preparations continued to handover power to a successor to strongman prime minister Meles Zenawi.

The funeral of Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the powerful Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who died last week aged 76, was held Thursday.

Some three thousand people, including priests dressed in yellow flowing robes and carrying staffs, along with crowds of nuns and politicians, massed outside the Church of Saint Selassie in Addis Ababa.

"It is very sad to lose two people in less than two weeks, it is very sad for everyone," said Eleni Zewdu, a mourner at the funeral.

"I'm deeply saddened because we have lost our father," said another mourner, Haile Asgedom. "They were both great people, great leaders, so everyone is saddened by it."

Still, it was the death of Meles, who ruled the Horn of Africa nation with an iron fist for 21 years, that dominated discussions in the city and in the news media.

Meles died overnight Monday to Tuesday following a long illness. The 57-year-old had not been seen in public since the G20 summit in Mexico in June.

State television continued to pay tribute to Meles, while his portrait appeared on the front pages of newspapers. The Reporter ran a full page picture beneath the headline "Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 1955-2012".

Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, who has also been foreign minister since 2010, will take over interim power, officials have said. He is expected to be sworn in as interim leader at an extraordinary parliament session in the coming days.

He had been due to be sworn in to office on Thursday, but that was later cancelled, possibly as it clashed with the funeral of Abune Paulos.

However, government spokesman Bereket Simon said the parliamentary meeting was cancelled because lawmakers wanted more time to mourn Meles's death.

"Parliament is asking that they have to be given time to mourn the prime minster as they are members, representatives of his constituency," Bereket told AFP.

He did not say when the emergency session is scheduled, only that it could take place "at any time."

Bereket has said Hailemariam would remain in the post until elections in 2015, although he must first be formally chosen as head of the ruling party, likely later this year. Analysts have suggested that several others are also in the running for the top job.

Abune Paulos, who died after a long illness, was the patriarch of Ethiopia's Orthodox Church since 1992, when he was elected to the highest order of the denomination.

Some two-thirds of Ethiopia's 84 million people are Christian, the majority following the Orthodox faith.

Ethiopia is in a region that is home to Al-Qaeda-linked groups, and Meles was a key Western ally.

But while world leaders praised his legacy, rights groups said his death offered a chance to end a brutal crackdown on basic freedoms.

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

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.

Meles -- who also had strong trade links with China -- was credited with Ethiopia's economic boom in the past decade, with growth shooting from 3.8 percent in the 1990s to 10 percent in 2010.

His death also leaves a major power gap in the region, with Ethiopia playing a key role in the fortunes of many of its neighbours.

No date has yet been set for his funeral.

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