Sierra Leone bids farewell to peacemaker president

FREETOWN (AFP) - Thousands of Sierra Leoneans gathered under a tropical sun in Freetown's national stadium on Sunday to pay their last respects to celebrated former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Widely credited with returning peace to the shattered west African nation after years of brutal civil war, Mr Kabbah died at home in Freetown after a long illness on March 13, aged 82.

Mourners in sombre Western dress or west African attire waved banners, sang Christian hymns and listened to readings from the Koran in an ecumenical celebration of the life of Sierra Leone's first Muslim head of state since independence in 1961.

"We are honouring a man who truly deserved honour... He was a great Sierra Leonean, a man who stood tall at critical moments of our country's history," said President Ernest Bai Koroma, dressed in billowing traditional black robes.

Mr Kabbah led the country during an 11-year civil war in which thousands had their limbs hacked off and 120,000 people were killed.

He was praised for launching a disarmament programme that led to the official end of the conflict in January 2002 with the help of a UN peacekeeping force and British military trainers.

Born in February 1932 to a Muslim family in eastern Sierra Leone, Mr Kabbah received a Christian education and married a Catholic, who died in 1998.

After studying human sciences in Britain, he joined the civil service in 1959.

He was elected in 1996 after working 22 years for the United Nations, becoming the first civilian head of state in more than 10 years.

At a three-hour funeral service, diplomats representing Guinea, Nigeria, Iran and Liberia eulogised Kabbah variously as a "man of peace", a "great statesman" and an "architect of Sierra Leone's development".

Afterwards, thousands lined the streets of the capital to catch a glimpse of the heavily guarded funeral cortege as it made its way to a Freetown cemetery.

Bystanders waved white handkerchiefs and mourners burst spontaneously into tears as the solid bronze casket, draped in the green, white and blue national flag, was lowered into the grave beside that of Mr Kabbah's mother.

"I have been sat by the grave since last evening in deep thought of the man who contributed so much to make Sierra Leone so secure in peace and stability," said pensioner Alpha Sankoh.

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