Thousands attend funeral of former Argentine president Alfonsin

Several thousand people attended the funeral Thursday in Buenos Aires of former Argentine president Raul Alfonsin, in a grand show of support for the man who led his country out of an era of dictatorship, dpa reported.

The social democrat Alfonsin, who died Tuesday of lung cancer at age 82, was president from 1983 to 1989, following a bloody dictatorship in which an estimated 30,000 people are believed to have been killed by military and paramilitary forces. Most of the bodies have never been found.

Alfonsin was buried at the Recoleta cemetery in central Buenos Aires and thousands braved the rain to watch the procession. On Wednesday, more than 70,000 people paid their respects at a funeral chapel set up in the Argentine Congress building.

"Alfonsin's qualities as a statesman paved the way not just for Argentina but for all of Latin America," former Brazilian president Jose Sarney said at the state funeral.

"Raul Alfonsin was proof of an exemplary life and now enters history as a patriot, the apostle of democracy," said Sarney, who governed Brazil from 1985 to 1990.

"Alfonsin transcended borders and time. Freedom is a conquest, and Alfonsin was the great builder of that freedom we enjoy today," said Gerardo Morales, the current chief of Alfonsin's Radical Civic Union.

Praise for one of the most respected figures in Argentine politics also came in from the country's vice president, Julio Cobos.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, in London for the G20 summit, was scheduled to return Friday - a day earlier than planned - to honour Alfonsin.

Despite the deep divisions in Argentine politics, former presidents Carlos Menem (1989-1999), Fernando de la Rua (1999-2001), Eduardo Duhalde (2002-2003) and Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) took part in ceremonies to honour Alfonsin.

Also attending were Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, former presidents Julio Maria Sanguinetti of Uruguay and Jose Sarney and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.

Born on March 12, 1927, in Chascomus, a small town 100 kilometres south of Buenos Aires, Alfonsin will be remembered as a symbol of Argentina's return to democracy and a human rights activist.

Alfonsin won the election on October 30, 1983, to become president. His inauguration on December 10 that year was a landmark event in Argentina's history.

It was clear at the time that he had been entrusted with a huge challenge. But even skeptics could not have guessed just how hard it was going to be to govern the South American country.

"The situation was not exactly simple," Alfonsin recalled in a recent interview with dpa, the German news agency.

As president, he created the National Commission on Disappeared Persons, which published the document "Nunca Mas," or never again, on the crimes of the dictatorship.

After leaving office, he remained active in Argentine politics. He said recently, "All my political activity sought to strengthen the autonomy of democratic institutions and the rule of law." 

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