Thousands of people are attending the state funeral in Addis Ababa of Ethiopia’s long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died last month.

Mr Meles’ flag-draped coffin was carried in a procession from his palace to the city’s Meskel Square, where a solemn religious ceremony began.

Dozens of foreign leaders and dignitaries, including at least 20 African presidents, were present.

Mr Meles died at the age of 57 in Brussels, following a long illness.

He came to power in 1991 and was credited for bringing development and growth to Ethiopia.

But critics say this was achieved at the cost of respect for human rights.

The state funeral – Ethiopia’s first in more than 80 years – began in Meskel Square after a journey of about an hour-and-a-half from Mr Meles’ official residence, the Grand National Palace.

The coffin was accompanied by hundreds of mourners, including Mr Meles’ widow Azeb Mesfin, who was seen being comforted by officials.

African presidents attending include South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on several counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the Darfur conflict.

Many of them paid tribute to the former prime minister.

President Boni Yayi of Benin, which currently holds the presidency of the African Union, said: “With his energy, vision and fight for the achievement of a free and prosperous Africa, the late Meles Zenawi… was a force… on which the African Union depended in these last 10 years.”

President Zuma said: “We are proud of Meles Zenawi, and the leadership he provided on issues affecting the continent and around the globe.”

Several prominent international figures including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates are also at the funeral.

The coffin will later be taken for burial at the city’s Holy Trinity Cathedral.

The prime minister was a former Marxist rebel and not publicly religious, but was brought up as an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.

In contrast to the secrecy traditionally surrounding the deaths of Ethiopian leaders, the ceremony is being broadcast live, and huge screens have been erected in cities and villages around the country.

The last Ethiopian leader to be honoured with a state funeral was the Empress Zauditu in 1930.

Regional role

Mr Meles became a dominant figure in the region after toppling toppling dictator Mengistu Hailemariam 21 years ago.

He ordered Ethiopian troops to intervene against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, mediated in the conflict in Sudan and South Sudan, and took a leading position in the African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa.

Mr Meles will be succeeded by his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, a relatively little-known politician from the south of Ethiopia.

Mr Hailemariam will formally take over as prime minister after Mr Meles’ funeral, and will serve until elections in 2015.

Some observers have voiced fears about the political transition.

The Brussels-based think tank, the Crisis Group, has warned that Mr Hailemariam will lead a weaker government that will face mounting grievances along ethnic and religious lines.

Mr Meles died suddenly from an infection on 20 August while being treated in hospital in Brussels.

He had not been seen in public for weeks before his death was announced, and there had been increasingly intense speculation about his health.