The body of Ethiopia's premier Meles Zenawi has been flown from Brussels to Addis Ababa amid both praise and criticism of his controversial rule. Thousands of Ethiopians turned out in Addis as he was laid in state.
Meles died at the age of 57 in Brussels on Monday, according to European Commission spokesman Oliver Bailly. Ethiopia's government said only that he passed away unexpectedly from an unspecified illness while abroad.
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, is due to be sworn in as acting premier by Ethiopia's parliament. The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has not set date to confirm a successor to Meles. Government spokesman Bereket Simon said "everything is stable."
World leaders offered praise for the rebel turned east African regional strongman who had led the mainly Christian nation of 84 million since 1991, when he overthrew a military junta that had become synonymous for mass starvation.
Rights groups call for end to crackdown
Human rights groups, however, said Wednesday that Meles' death offered a chance to end a brutal crackdown on basic freedoms.
Human Rights Watch called on Ethiopia's next administration to repeal a much-criticized anti-terrorism law, under which opposition figures and journalists - including two Swedes - are serving jail terms.
Amnesty International called on the country's new leaders to end the government's "repression," which it said, had been "ever-increasing."
Great loss, says African Union
The African Union, based in Addis Ababa, said that the continent had been robbed of "one of its greatest sons" in an apparent reference to Meles' role in mediating regional conflicts and quelling unrest, for example, through Ethiopian troop interventions against al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Somalia.
US President Barack Obama said Meles deserved "recognition for his lifelong contribution" to Ethiopia's economic development and for "his desire to lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty through his drive for food security."
Correspondents in Addis Ababa said many Ethiopians complain that Meles' business projects, for example with China, did not translate into more jobs. Ethiopia remains one of the world's poorest nations.
Israel praises 'true friend'
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Meles had been a "true friend" of Israel which is home to more than 120,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin.
Ethiopian state television said details of Meles' funeral would be announced soon.
A European Union source in Brussels quoted by Reuters said Meles had been a patient at the city's Saint-Luc University Hospital. Meles had not been seen in public since the G20 summit in Mexico in June.
ipj/slk (Reuters, AFP)