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Phnom Penh -
Cambodia is due to hold an elaborate cremation ceremony on Monday for its revered former king Norodom Sihanouk, part of a week-long funeral for the colourful late royal.
Foreign dignitaries including French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Japan's Prince Akishino and several Southeast Asian leaders are due to attend the ceremony, which starts at 09.00 GMT, along with relatives of the late royal.
“It's the last day for us all to pay homage to the great hero king and to send him to heaven,” said Sihanouk's long-time personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico.
“It is the day for the whole nation to say goodbye to his majesty. He is the hero of Cambodia,” Thomico told AFP, but added that only officials and guests would be allowed inside the actual cremation site in Phnom Penh.
Sihanouk, who towered over six tumultuous decades in his nation's history, died of a heart attack in Beijing in October, aged 89.
Crowds of mourners lined the streets of the Cambodian capital Friday for a lavish funeral procession for Sihanouk, though attendance appeared to fall well short of the one million people predicted by the government.
Sihanouk's embalmed body had been lying in state at the palace for three months before it was transported to a specially built crematorium in a Phnom Penh park.
After religious ceremonies on Monday, his widow Monique and son King Norodom Sihamoni are expected to symbolically light the pyre, although Thomico said that “modern techniques” would be used in the cremation.
More than 400 recently pardoned prisoners will also attend the event, which will be marked by a 101-gun salute.
After the cremation, some of Sihanouk's ashes will be scattered where the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Tonle Bassac rivers meet. The remainder will be taken to the royal palace on Thursday where they will be kept in a royal urn.
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.
Many elderly Cambodians credit him with overseeing a rare period of political stability in the 1950s and 1960s, following independence, until the Khmer Rouge emerged in the 1970s.
Up to two million people died under their reign of terror, including five of Sihanouk's own children.
But even though the ever-changeable monarch had allied himself with the Maoist movement, Sihanouk - a self-confessed “naughty boy” who loved to direct films, write poetry and compose songs - remained hugely popular among Cambodians.
“I'm really in shock. But I'm glad that I had a chance to see him off,” said Sum Seun, 60, one of thousands of mourners over the weekend who visited the crematorium site to pay respects to the gilded casket which could be glimpsed through its doorways.
“Since I was young, I saw him doing good things for the country,” he said. “He earned independence, peace, and prosperity for the country. Now he has gone, I'm worried that peace might vanish in the future.” - Sapa-AFP