KHARTOUM - Thousands of Sudanese packed into the city of Omdurman on Friday for the funeral of Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan's last democratically elected prime minister, who died from the coronavirus at the age of 84. Mourners in traditional white garments, mostly wearing masks, wept and waved national flags ahead of prayers for the two-time prime minister, who was a central figure in Sudan's political and spiritual life for more than half a century. "Today the icon of tolerance in Sudan has passed away, a symbol of civilian jihad in Sudan, a warrior knight," one mourner, Abd al-Rahman al-Zein, told Sudanese TV through tears. Stewards moved through the crowds gathered before the domed shrine where he was to be buried offering hand sanitiser to mourners as a precaution against COVID-19, but there was little sign of social distancing. Mahdi's Umma Party had urged mourners on Thursday to follow all health procedures. Oxford-educated Mahdi, great-grandson of the messianic figure who fought the British in the 19th century, contracted COVID-19 last month and had been receiving treatment in the United Arab Emirates. "The scenes broadcast on television of the funeral despite the health conditions... indicate the extent of the popularity and political weight that the late Imam enjoyed," said Rasha Awad, editor of Al Taghyeer online newspaper. "Mahdi was known for his moderation and realistic reading of the Sudanese political arena... His absence will inevitably weaken the democratic transition process," she added. NATIONAL MOURNING Some mourners said they had come from various regions of the vast north African country to bid farewell to Mahdi. The government has declared three days of national mourning. Mahdi's body arrived at Khartoum airport on Friday morning, where the head of the ruling sovereign council, the prime minister and other top officials attended an official reception. The coffin then moved to Omdurman, the capital's twin city across the river Nile, for the funeral, state TV reported. His body was buried alongside his great-grandfather, the Mahdi, or messiah, who had led an insurgency against British colonial rule in the late 1800s. Sudan is run by a transitional government formed under a fragile three-year power sharing agreement between the military and civilian groups since the ousting of Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019. Mahdi had been trying to bridge the gap between the military and civilian leaders, Awad said. He was last voted into office in 1986, then overthrown three years later in a military coup led by Bashir, then an obscure army brigadier. Mahdi was imprisoned and forced into exile often during his long career but staged just as many come-backs and remained influential. His Umma Party was one of the largest opposition groups during Bashir's 30-year rule. He returned from exile a final time as protests over worsening economic conditions gathered steam in December 2018. Those demonstrations eventually led to Bashir's overthrow in April 2019. REUTERS
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