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Body of Tonga's late King George Tupou V returns home

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga -- Tonga's late King George Tupou V's body returned home Monday to a reception of solemn military pomp and thousands of children lining the streets to honor the eccentric monarch's legacy.

A China Southern jet carrying the late king's body and his successor, younger brother King Tupou VI, arrived at Fua'amuotu International Airport under the blazing afternoon sun.

Draped in the Tongan royal standard, the coffin was quietly borne off the plane by members of the royal guard decked in khaki dress uniforms with gold braids and red sashes, and topped with white pith-like helmets.

Members of the king's family and Tongan nobility, all wearing the traditional ta'ovala woven mats over their clothes, watched as the coffin was placed inside a dark blue van and driven across the tarmac.

The late king's niece Princess Latufuipeka Mata'aho, with a ta'ovala stretching from head to toe to signify her closeness to the deceased, came off the plane behind her father after accompanying the body back from Hong Kong.

Schoolgirls sat on stretches of mulberry tree paper decorated with royal symbols and bowed their heads as the cortege passed. Crowds of mourners, invited dignitaries and officials looked on in silence.

Thousands had sat for hours along the 25-kilometre (15-mile) stretch from the airport to the capital Nuku'alofa in the burning sun to pay their respects to the late king.

“He was a good king,” a black-clad Malaa Helu Li told AFP from the airport. “And very, very important in Tonga.”

King George Tupou V, known as an eccentric spirit who welcomed democracy into his kingdom, died eight days ago in Hong Kong where he had been visiting ahead of a rugby tournament.

The cause of death has not been revealed but the 63-year-old last year underwent surgery for cancer.

As the body of the late king lay in state in the throne room at the harborside palace, hundreds of Tongans gathered to pray and mourn Monday evening in its gardens, the sound of their singing filling the balmy air.

News of his death plunged the poor country of some 100,000 people into grief, with Tongans from all walks of life wearing traditional black mourning dress with the ta'ovala mats tied around their waists.

Most buildings have been bedecked with the mourning colors of black and purple — from the Nuku'alofa post office to palm trees and homes — and thousands are expected to gather Tuesday to attend the funeral and entombment.

Tongans living overseas and on the smaller islands have traveled to the main island of Tongatapu to be with their families in the deeply Christian country for the rare occasion of a king's funeral.

Despite his globe-trotting lifestyle, which sometimes prompted criticism that he did not spend enough time in his homeland, the late monarch's funeral will be an elaborate affair and protocol strictly observed.

Some 150 men will carry the large black platform on which his casket will rest for the short distance from the palace to the royal tombs.

The country, which lies near the International Date Line, will hold a coronation for the new king at a time of his choosing, but a traditional kava ceremony will be held on Saturday to invest him as monarch.

His predecessor, who entered negotiations with reformers on changes that would bring majority government to Tonga for the first time, delayed his coronation until 2008 after riots two years earlier.

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A student from Queen Salote Boarding School wipes dust from a portrait of King George Tupou V as she waits for his casket to arrive at Fua'amotu International Airport in Tonga on Monday, March 26. (AFP)

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