ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Thousands of mourners gathered near a public square in Ethiopia’s capital on Sunday to pay their final respects to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was praised for lifting many out of poverty but vilified by some for restricting freedoms.
Meles, who ruled for 21 years, died Aug. 20 of an undisclosed illness in a Belgian hospital. He was 57. During his rule Ethiopia was a strong ally of the United States on counterterrorism issues, particularly in Somalia, and some saw him as Africa’s intellectual leader in efforts to fight poverty.
Ethiopian officials said the state funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by hundreds of dignitaries from Africa and around the world. Regional leaders praised Meles’s record, saying he provided leadership to the whole of Africa. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa said Ethiopia had lost ‘‘a patriot and a visionary.’’
‘‘His was a life of immense courage, vision, and enterprise which he devoted to the advancement of his fellow citizens in this country and across Africa,’’ said President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
The US delegation was led by Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, who described Meles as ‘‘unpretentious and direct.’’
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is acting as prime minister. It remains unclear when he will be sworn in, but Ethiopian officials say no elections are planned.
Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust a communist military junta that had been responsible for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian deaths.
Meles became prime minister in 1995, a position that is both the head of the federal government and armed forces. The US saw him as a strong security partner and gave hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. US military drones that patrol East Africa — especially over Somalia — are stationed in Ethiopia.
In the mid-2000s, the country saw strong economic growth, which won Meles international praise. The International Monetary Fund in 2008 said Ethiopia’s economy had grown faster than any non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.
But Ethiopia under Meles was criticized by human rights groups for the government’s strict control, especially of independent political groups and the press.