Ethiopians mourn strongman ruler Meles, dead at 57
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Thousands of Ethiopians descended on the centre of the capital Addis Ababa on Tuesday to mourn Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, their firm-handed ruler of more than two decades, whose body was flown home after his death in a Brussels hospital at 57.
Supporters mourned him as the savior of a long-suffering nation and Washington praised its ally, but opponents hailed the death of an autocrat one group described as a "genocidal tyrant". Traffic was congested from the airport to his residence, where his body was to be put on display.
Meles, whose death ended months of rumor that he was gravely ill, had seized power 21 years ago from a military junta that had become notorious around the world for policies that contributed to mass starvation.
A former guerrilla leader turned economic reformer, he had presided in recent years over some of the fastest growth rates in Africa. But Ethiopia still remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and his opponents say his suppression of dissent held the country back.
In recent years he had become a close ally of the United States in fighting Islamic militants in East Africa, especially in neighboring Somalia, which he twice invaded. The White House mourned his "untimely loss".
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will be sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament and the ruling party will meet to choose a successor but no date has been set.
Secretive to the end, Meles left it to officials of the European Union to disclose that he was being treated in the Belgian capital when he succumbed to an unspecified illness. Government spokesman Bereket Simon said only that he had been ailing for a year and died after being rushed to intensive care.
Since taking power in 1991 from Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta, Meles became one of the central political figures on the continent. Continued...