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Cambodia monarch's body returns to sea of mourners

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets of the Cambodian capital on Wednesday to pay their last respects to revered former King Norodom Sihanouk on his final journey home.

The body of the mercurial ex-monarch, who steered his country through turbulent decades of war, genocide and finally peace, returned on a special flight from Beijing, where he died of a heart attack on Monday aged 89.

Draped with flowers and a royal blue flag, his coffin was borne through the streets of Phnom Penh on a golden float shaped like a mythological bird with robed monks seated in front and behind.

Sihanouk's widow Queen Monique, son King Norodom Sihamoni and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accompanied the casket in a slow-moving convoy.

Cambodians of all ages — wearing white shirts and black ribbons — clasped their hands together in prayer as the procession passed. Many wept at the sight of Sihanouk's coffin passing en route to the royal palace.

“It's a sad day for the Cambodian people. The King-Father loved his children very much,” said Theng Nary, 67, tears rolling down her cheeks.

The government estimated that more than 100,000 people turned out to witness the homecoming of the charismatic former monarch, who remained popular even after standing down in favor of his son in 2004 citing old age and ill health.

His body will lie in state at the palace for three months before an elaborate funeral for the towering political figure, who abdicated twice, served variously as premier and head of state and spent years in exile.

The homecoming marked the start of a week-long mourning period during which the government has ordered radio and television stations not to broadcast joyful programs.

It has also cancelled the festivities for next month's Water Festival, an annual celebration that usually draws millions of visitors to the capital to enjoy dragon boat races, fireworks and concerts.

Mourners have flocked to the palace in recent days to pay tribute to Sihanouk with lotus flowers, candles and incense sticks, many of them sobbing as they knelt in prayer.

“His death is a great loss for Cambodia,” said 66-year-old Thong Bunsy, who described the former monarch as “a hero” who protected Cambodian territory and “chased the French away.”

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Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni, center right, accompanied by his mother Queen Monineqath Sihanouk, center left, arrives back from Beijing at Phnom Penh International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 17. (AFP)

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