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Thousands gather for Meles Zenawi's state funeral in Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Thousands of mourners gathered near a public square in Ethiopia's capital on Sunday to pay their final respects to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was praised for lifting many out of poverty but vilified by some for restricting certain freedoms.

Meles, who ruled for 21 years, died 20 August of an undisclosed illness in a Belgian hospital. He was 57. During his rule, Ethiopia was a strong US ally on counter-terrorism issues, particularly in Somalia, and some saw him as Africa's intellectual leader in efforts to fight poverty.

Ethiopian officials said the Addis Ababa funeral is being attended by hundreds of dignitaries from around the world, including several African leaders. The White House said it was sending a delegation led by Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN. The funeral is the culmination of two weeks of national mourning. Posters, pictures and quotes attributed to the late prime minister have been ubiquitous in nearly every street of the capital.

After the funeral service in Meskel Square, a procession will carry Meles' casket for burial at the Holy Trinity Church, where some of the country's most illustrious people are interred.

Born on May 8, 1955, Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust a Communist military junta that had been responsible for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian deaths.

Government ministers and officials, including acting Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, center front, pay their respects before the coffin of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. AP

Meles became prime minister in 1995, a position that is both the head of the federal government and armed forces. The US saw Meles as a strong security partner and gave hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. US military drones that patrol East Africa — especially over Somalia — are stationed in Ethiopia. In the mid-2000s, the country saw strong economic growth, which won Meles international praise. The International Monetary Fund in 2008 said Ethiopia's economy had grown faster than any non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.

But Ethiopia under Meles was criticized by human rights groups for the government's strict control, especially of independent political groups and the press.

Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is currently acting as prime minister. It remains unclear when he will be sworn in, but Ethiopian officials say no elections are planned.

Hailemariam is a relatively young figure on Ethiopia's political scene. It is not clear if the old guard will allow him to keep the prime minister's post in the long run.

AP