Large Cambodian crowd as ex-king's body returns

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The body of King Norodom Sihanouk returned to his homeland yesterday, welcomed by hundreds of thousands of mourners who packed tree-lined roads in the capital ahead of the royal funeral.

Sihanouk, 89, died Monday of a heart attack in Beijing, where he had been under medical treatment since January.

The former monarch was the last surviving Southeast Asian leader to guide his nation through postwar independence. He served as prime minister and twice as king before abdicating the throne for good in 2004.

A Boeing 747 arranged by the government of China, a steadfast friend of the late monarch for decades, brought back the body, which was accompanied by Sihanouk's widow, Queen Mother Monineath.

Also on the plane were Sihanouk's son and successor, King Sihamoni. The coffin was taken five miles to the Royal Palace, where Sihanouk will lie in state for three months.

Officials estimated the crowd lining the route at more than 200,000; state broadcaster TVK said later about 500,000 people had turned out.

Many, especially the elderly, bowed low, with hands pressed together above their heads in a mark of respect.

Sihanouk played many roles in the Cambodia he helped navigate through half a century of war and genocide. He was known as an independence hero, communist collaborator, eccentric playboy, and a cunning and sometimes ruthless monarch and prime minister.

First crowned king in 1941, he stepped down in 1953 to pursue a political career. As head of state during the Cold War, he tried to steer his country on a neutralist course.

Eventually, his country became enmeshed in the conflict in neighboring Vietnam, leading to his first fall from power and culminating in the murderous rule of the communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, during which about 1.7 million of his countrymen perished.

In an effort to regain his political influence, he made common cause with Khmer Rouge, though the regime never yielded power to him and killed five of his children.

After the Khmer Rouge were ousted and Sihanouk regained the throne in 1993, he rebuilt his reputation as the conscience of his country.

But Prime Minister Hun Sen, a canny politician who had defected from the Khmer Rouge, undercut his influence, and a discouraged Sihanouk gave up the throne eight years ago. He spent much of the rest of his life in China.

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