Thatcher funeral set for next week in divided Britain

LONDON (AFP) - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will lead mourners at next week's funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the first time the monarch will have attended the ceremony of one of her former prime ministers since Winston Churchill died in 1965.

Tributes from world leaders who hailed the role of the "Iron Lady" in bringing down communism kept flooding in as the British government announced that the funeral would be on Wednesday next week in London's St Paul's Cathedral.

Speculation mounted on Tuesday that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and ex-United States first lady Nancy Reagan would be invited to the ceremonial funeral, one step down from the state funeral given to Churchill, but the same honour afforded to the Queen Mother and to Princess Diana.

But "Maggie" remained as polarising in death as she did in life, with violence erupting at street parties celebrating the demise of a figure who critics say destroyed millions of lives with her free-market economic policies.

Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister and longest serving premier of the 20th century, died on Monday aged 87 after suffering a stroke. She had suffered dementia for more than a decade.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, a fellow Conservative, told a briefing on Tuesday ahead of a meeting with G-8 counterparts that Britain was grateful for the condolences from around the world.

"She was an inspiration to many people in other countries, not just this country, particularly people aspiring to their own freedom and democracy at a time they didn't have it, such as behind the Iron Curtain," Mr Hague said.

Condolence books were set up at several British embassies around the world.

Pope Francis was among the latest to pay tribute to Thatcher, hailing her "promotion of freedom". Similar tributes have come from US President Barack Obama and dozens of current and former world leaders including her one-time Soviet adversary Gorbachev.

Current British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said the government had agreed during a meeting with Thatcher's family and Buckingham Palace that her funeral would take place next Wednesday, followed by a private cremation.

"A wide and diverse range of people and groups with connections to Lady Thatcher will be invited," it said.

The queen and her husband Prince Philip will attend, Buckingham Palace said. The monarch does not usually attend funerals or memorial services of non-royals.

Thatcher's coffin will rest in the Houses of Parliament the night before the funeral and will be taken through the streets on a gun carriage to the cathedral with full military honours.

Several Conservative lawmakers have called for her to receive a full state funeral but her spokesman Lord Tim Bell said Thatcher had specifically said such an observance was "not appropriate".

A private ambulance accompanied by police motorcycle outriders removed Thatcher's body early Tuesday from the luxury Ritz hotel in central London where she spent the last days of her life, an AFP photographer said.

Lawmakers have been recalled to parliament this Wednesday to debate Thatcher's legacy and will vote on a motion paying tribute to her.

But that legacy - encompassing brutal clashes with miners, the crushing of the trade unions, violent poll tax riots and the Falklands War with Argentina - remains as divisive in 2013 as it was during her 11 years in power from 1979 to 1990.

Even in her home town of Grantham, eastern England, where she was born to a humble grocer and his wife, opinion was sharply split.

"I am glad she is dead. ... She closed down the mines and bought the coal from communist countries, our enemies," said 39-year-old Mr Michael Blocksidge outside the town's guildhall, where the flag flew at half mast as it does over the parliament and Buckingham Palace.

Trouble erupted at several parties to celebrate her death in south London, Bristol in southwest England and Glasgow in Scotland, reminiscent of the sometimes violent protests during her time in office in the 1980s.

In Bristol six police officers were injured, one seriously, bottles and cans were thrown at officers and fires were started in bins.

The Brixton revellers danced to hip-hop and reggae songs blaring from sound systems and changed a local cinema sign to a slogan celebrating the ex-premier's death. Police said there was "low level" disorder but no arrests and no serious injuries.

Britain's newspapers were similarly divided even if they were unanimous on the extent of Thatcher's impact.

Right-wing titles carried effusive praise, with the Daily Telegraph calling her a "champion of freedom for workers, nations and the world."

But the left-wing Guardian said she promoted a "cult of greed".

Outside Thatcher's plush central London townhouse a slow but steady stream of mourners laid flowers in tribute.

"I'm very sad. She is a big icon," said Mr Martin Wolf, 37, a Czech man who works at the London hotel where Thatcher staged her 80th birthday party.

Thatcher's twin son and daughter were both out of the country when she died. Her husband Denis died in 2003.

In Argentina, meanwhile, several veterans of the Falklands War reacted with delight at news of her death.

"God bless the day that that terrible woman has died," said Mr Domenico Gruscomagno, 71.

Britain and Argentina went to war in 1982 after Argentine forces invaded the disputed but British-held islands. Tensions continue to this day.