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Thousands fill streets of Seoul in an emotional farewell to Roh

A SEA of mourners filled the streets of Seoul yesterday for the funeral of ex-President Roh Moo-hyun, whose suicide had plunged South Korea into grief and anger.

Heads bowed, thousands took part in a solemn ceremony in the courtyard of the Gyeongbok Palace before the hearse carrying Roh's body headed to a grassy plaza outside City Hall for emotional public rites attended by a reported 500,000 people.

Police dispatched some 21,000 officers to quell any protests by Roh supporters, who accuse political opponents led by President Lee Myung-bak of driving the ex-leader to his death with a government investigation into bribery allegations.

Roh, 62, died on May 23 after throwing himself off a cliff behind his home in the southern village of Bongha. Roh, president from 2003 to 2008, had been questioned about claims he and his family accepted US$6 million in bribes during his presidency.

He denied the allegations, but they weighed heavily on a man who prided himself as a "clean" politician.

Roh "lived a life dedicated entirely to human rights, democracy and the fight against authoritarianism," Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said at the funeral. "Our people won't forget what you accomplished for the country and the people despite a number of hardships."

Roh supporters have called the investigation "political revenge," and posters accusing Lee of driving Roh to his death plastered the walls of one Seoul subway station.

Opposition politicians jeered Lee as he and his wife approached the altar to pay their respects.

"President Lee Myung-bak, apologize!" one of them, Baek Won-woo, yelled before security guards hauled him away. "This is political revenge, a political murder!"

Roh's death triggered a wave of grief across South Korea.

After his death, around a million mourners made a pilgrimage to his hometown to pay their respects.

The funeral procession began at dawn. Villagers lining Bongha's streets tossed yellow paper airplanes at the hearse blanketed with white chrysanthemums, a traditional Korean symbol of mourning, as the convoy left for Seoul.

In the courtyard of the palace in the capital, Roh's portrait sat on a bed of a million chrysanthemums laid in the shape of a Rose of Sharon, South Korea's national flower.

Roh's suicide note, in which he begs his wife and two children, "Don't be too sad," and explains his suffering as "unbearable," was read aloud.

His body was to be cremated outside Seoul before being returned to his home village.

Some mourners tried to prevent the hearse from leaving but police in riot gear moved in to disperse the crowd.


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