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Cambodia cremates former king Sihanouk

Thousands gather in Phnom Penh to pay their final respects to the revered monarch who ruled the country for six decades.
Last Modified: 04 Feb 2013 14:14
Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing in October, aged 89 [Reuters]

Thousands of mourners massed in the Cambodian capital as the body of former king Norodom Sihanouk, who steered the country through six turbulent decades, was cremated.

The cremation on Monday was part of a week-long funeral for the revered ex-monarch, which started with a lavish procession through the streets of Phnom Penh on Friday and will see his ashes returned to the palace on Thursday.

Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing in October, aged 89. His embalmed body had been lying in state since then at the royal palace.

After religious ceremonies led by chanting monks, Sihanouk's tearful widow Monique and son King Norodom Sihamoni symbolically lit the pyre.

Smoke was seen rising into the sky from the crematory, an elaborate pagoda built specially for the occasion and illuminated as darkness fell.

A 101-gun salute echoed in the night and fireworks burst over the city.

"It's the last day for us all to pay homage to the great hero king and to send him to heaven," Sihanouk's long-time personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico said before the cremation.

"It is the day for the whole nation to say goodbye to his majesty. He is the hero of Cambodia," Thomico told the AFP news agency.

Foreign dignitaries

Half of the ashes will be scattered in the Mekong River. The remainder will be kept in an urn at the royal palace in accordance with the former king's wishes.

Mourners jostled to get to the front of the queue to enter the cremation site to pay their last respects to the king, before the arrival of official guests including French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Japan's Prince Akishino and several Southeast Asian leaders who bowed in respect.

Thousands of people had already queued up at the crematorium over the weekend for a glimpse of the gilded casket, but the general public was kept several hundred metres away from the site for the actual cremation.

A father of 14 children over six marriages, Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 after steering Cambodia through six decades marked by independence from France, civil war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, his own exile and finally peace.

Even though the monarch had allied himself with the Maoist movement, Sihanouk - who loved to direct films, write poetry and compose songs - remained hugely popular.

"He earned independence, peace, and prosperity for the country. Now he has gone, I'm worried that peace might vanish in the future," said Sum Seun, 60.

Attendance at Friday's funeral procession, however, appeared to fall well short of the one million people predicted by the government.

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