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President Bongo's body arrives in Libreville for state funeral

Video by Guillaume COUDERC , Sarah DRURY

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-06-12

Gabon's late president Omar Bongo's remains have arrived in Gabon's capital Libreville, where he is to be buried. French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attend the funeral.

AFP - The body of Gabon's late president Omar Bongo Ondimba arrived Thursday by plane in Libreville, where he will be given a state funeral, from Barcelona in Spain, where he died aged 73.

   
The aircraft landed at around 4:15 pm (1515 GMT), to be greeted by a crowd of about 10,000 people, who had gathered in the afternoon around Libreville's airport.
   
Politicians, diplomats and members of the defence and security forces were on the tarmac to render military honours to the coffin, draped in the national flag.
   
When the plane came to a halt, Bongo's daughter and cabinet chief Pascaline fell sobbing into the arms of Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who was also Bongo's father in law. Some people in the crowd were also in tears.
   
Several of the officials who had accompanied the body from Spain were also visibly moved as they disembarked, leaning on the handrail and on the arms of their neighbours.
   
The coffin was driven off aboard a military vehicle towards the presidential palace by the Atlantic Ocean, where it will lie in state for several days until Tuesday's state funeral.
   
In the crowd, hundreds of youths could be seen wearing T-shirts with photos of Bongo, who ruled the oil-rich equatorial African country for 41 years. The slogans read, "I love and admire my president."
   
Gabon's government, headed by Senate speaker Rose Francine Rogombe who was sworn in as interim president on Wednesday in line with the constitution, has declared a mourning period of 30 days. Rogombe also has 45 days to organise a presidential election.
   
The daily L'Union newspaper said in a government statement Thursday that the day would be a public holiday, like June 16, when dignitaries from many nations are expected to attend Bongo's funeral.
   
Sassou Nguesso arrived in Libreville Wednesday, after telling Radio France Internationale that he was living in a "particularly trying period," first to have lost his daughter Edith Lucie in March, and then his son-in-law.
   
President Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic arrived Thursday in the quiet city, where most shops, stores and offices were shut and the mayor has ordered the closure of bars and night clubs until after Tuesday.
   
The six-nation Economic Community of West African States, of which Gabon is a member, has declared a community mourning period of 30 days. Foreign leaders will continue to arrive in Libreville for Bongo's state funeral next Tuesday.
   
Between now and then, Bongo's body will lie in state for tribute to be paid by the people and political class of the nation, many of whom are too young to have known any other leader than Africa's longest-serving head of state.
   
One man tipped to succeed Bongo is his son, Defence Minister Ali Ben Bongo, who briefly closed Gabon's land, sea and air borders after the announcement in a Barcelona private clinic on Monday that Bongo had died of a heart attack.
   
A source in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party hinted earlier in the week that the government was moving fast and in line with the constitution over the transition period to ease fears of an upheaval in a power vacuum.
   
Rogombe, who acquired the nickname of "the Iron Lady" during her years practising law, enjoys all the powers of an elected president except the authority to dissolve parliament or to hold referenda. Under the constitution, as interim leader she cannot herself run for the presidency.
   
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be one of the key guests at Tuesday's funeral, after a period of shaky ties between the former colonial power and the ruling elite in Gabon, which would be one of Africa's richest nations if the oil wealth had trickled down to the 1.5 million people.
   
 In his last months, Bongo's relations with Paris were marred by a French probe into his luxury residences in France and a court order to freeze his bank accounts, amid allegations of embezzlement.

Date created : 2009-06-11

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