A woman cries while lifting a portrait of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as she waits for the arrival for his remains in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa.

Addis Ababa -

Thousands of wailing Ethiopians turned out Wednesday to greet the body of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as an official national mourning period began after his death in a Brussels hospital.

A military band played as the coffin, draped in the national flag, was taken from an Ethiopian Airlines flight in the early hours of the morning, a ceremony also attended by political, military and religious leaders as well as diplomats.

Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, who has also been foreign minister since 2010, will take over interim power, officials said. He wept as the body was carried to the hearse.

Hailemariam is expected to be sworn in as interim leader at an extraordinary parliament session in the coming days.

State media reported he would remain in the post until elections in 2015, although he must first be formally chosen as head of the ruling party, likely later this year, and analysts suggest several others are also in the running for the top job.

Meles died overnight Monday to Tuesday following a long illness. The 57-year-old had not been seen in public since the G20 summit in Mexico in June.

As his coffin arrived, his two daughters and widow Azeb Mesfin, dressed in black, walked ahead of a military band, Azeb wailing loudly. People carried candles and portraits of Meles, following a convoy of cars accompanying the body.

The coffin was taken to the prime minister's official residence at the national palace, where Meles's body is lying in state until the funeral, said national television, which broadcast live footage from Addis Ababa streets as the coffin passed slowly.

Several hundred mourners gathered to pay their respects at the palace.

Much of the capital appeared to return to normal later Wednesday, although in shops and offices across the city, coverage of the leader's death blared from televisions and radios. No date for the funeral has been set.

Newspaper headlines were solemn, with the Amharic-language daily Addis Zemen announcing “Ethiopia has lost its great leader.”

“I am very, very sad he passed away.... I think we (have never had a leader) like Meles,” said travel agent Tezeru Tilahun, 57, holding back tears. “I can't say anything because I am very, very sad.”

Meles, a regional strongman in the volatile Horn of Africa, was a former rebel who ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades.

He came to power in 1991 after toppling the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, set Ethiopia on a path of rapid growth and played a key role in mediating regional conflicts, but also drew criticism for cracking down on opponents and curtailing human rights.

US President Barack Obama led tributes to Meles, who he said deserved “recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia's development”, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed Meles's “exceptional leadership”.

Meles was a key Western ally in a region home to Al-Qaeda-linked groups.

But while world leaders praised his legacy, rights groups said his death offered a chance to end a brutal crackdown on basic freedoms.

He was regularly singled out as one of the continent's worst human rights predators, and Amnesty International called on the country's new leaders to end his government's “ever-increasing repression”.

Human Rights Watch called for the next administration to repeal a much-criticised 2009 anti-terrorism law, under which several opposition figures and journalists, including two Swedes, have been jailed for lengthy terms.

Meles Ä who also had strong trade links with China Ä was credited with Ethiopia's economic boom in the past decade, with growth shooting from 3.8 percent in the 1990s to 10 percent in 2010.

His death also leaves a major power gap in the region, with Ethiopia playing a key role in the fortunes of many of its neighbours.

Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time last year Ä

after a US-backed invasion in 2006 Ä and Ethiopia is supporting the fight against Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents.

Meles's death could also potentially see changes in the relationship with arch-foe Eritrea, which split from Ethiopia in 1993 before the two spiralled into a bitter 1998-2000 border war in which tens of thousands died.

He also had a central role in brokering peace efforts between newly independent South Sudan and its former civil war foe Sudan. - Sapa-AFP