Addis Ababa. Thousands of mourning Ethiopians turned out on Wednesday as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s body arrived at Addis Ababa airport following his death in a Brussels hospital at the aged 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 spokesman 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.
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 spokesman 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 spokesman 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 spokesman 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.
World leaders offered high praise for Meles — British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed him as “an inspirational spokesman for Africa” — but rights groups said his death offered a chance to end a brutal crackdown on basic freedoms.
Meles was regularly singled out as one of the continent’s worst human rights predators, and Amnesty International 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-criticized 2009 anti-terrorism law, under which several opposition figures and journalists, including two Swedes, have been jailed for lengthy terms.
Diplomats and analysts in Addis Ababa say it is unclear how the government has been run since Meles was reported to have been hospitalized in June.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told the BBC that Meles had been “a great leader” but said he also “fears for the stability of Ethiopia upon his death.”
“The Ethiopian state is very fragile,” he said. “I don’t know if they have sufficiently prepared for his succession.”
Ethiopia faces several internal threats, including the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, fighting for greater autonomy in the southeastern ethnic Somali region. The group said it hoped Meles’s death “may usher [in] a new era of stability and peace.”
Meles 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.
On paper, his government fostered a policy of ethnic federalism, devolving significant powers to regional, ethnically based authorities, but central control remains firmly in the hands of the ruling party.
His death also leaves a major power gap in the Horn of Africa, with Ethiopia playing a key role in the fortunes of many of its neighbors.
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time last year — after a US-backed invasion in 2006 — and Ethiopia is supporting the fight against Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab.
The Shebab said it was celebrating the “uplifting news.”
Meles’s death could also potentially see changes in the relationship with arch-foe Eritrea, which split from Ethiopia in 1993 before the two spiralled into a bitter 1998-2000 border war in which tens of thousands died.
Asmara has so far made no comment on his death.
Meles also played a key role in brokering peace efforts between newly independent South Sudan and its former civil war foe Sudan.