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Nelson Mandela funeral: Gerry Adams and Oprah Winfrey among thousands gathered for final farewell to ex-South African leader and statesman

Several thousand guests including Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, Prince Charles and Oprah Winfrey have gathered to pay their last respects to Nelson Mandela during a moving funeral service in South Africa.

Big guns fired a salute in the rural village where Nelson Mandela grew up and military servicemen marched stiffly behind his casket on a winding dirt road as South Africa said goodbye for the last time to the man who reconciled the country in its most vulnerable period.

Thousands gathered in a huge tent at the family compound of the anti-apartheid leader, who died on December 5 at the age of 95 after a long illness.

Guests included senior South African officials, veterans of the fight against white rule and foreign diplomats. Britain's Prince Charles, entrepreneur Richard Branson and former Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai were also there.

Mr Mandela's portrait was placed behind two rows of candles in the white, dome-shaped marquee. Outside, South African honour guards from the army, navy and air force marched in formation. Mr Mandela's casket, covered by a national flag, was transported on a military vehicle to the tent, where pallbearers carried it on a red carpet into the tent where guests awaited.

After the funeral ceremony, a smaller group of guests was to attend the former president's burial at a family grave site on the estate in Qunu, a rural village in Eastern Cape province.

The burial will end 10 days of mourning ceremonies that included a massive stadium memorial in Johannesburg and three days during which Mr Mandela's body lay in state in the capital, Pretoria.

His casket arrived at the family compound from the capital yesterday. It was accompanied by an enormous convoy of police, military and other vehicles.

Mr Mandela spent 27 years in jail as a prisoner from apartheid, then emerged to lead a delicate transition to democracy when many South Africans feared that the country would sink into all-out racial conflict. He became president in the first all-race elections in 1994.

While South Africa faces many problems, including crime, unemployment and economic inequality, Mr Mandela is seen by many compatriots as the father of their nation and around the world as an example of the healing power of reconciliation.

Dignitaries from across the globe gather

Dignitaries from around the world have gathered for the state funeral of Nelson Mandela in the remote village where the anti-apartheid fighter grew up.

The Prince of Wales is among some 4,000 people attending the final farewell service for South Africa's first black president, along with Mr Mandela's family members, African leaders and several heads of state.

Charles, who arrived in South Africa this morning, has been joined by the British High Commissioner to South Africa Judith Macgregor for the service in Qunu.

Prominent US civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson is also attending, as well as former Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, entrepreneur Richard Branson and broadcaster Oprah Winfrey.

It marks the end of a week of memorial events for the anti-apartheid hero which have attracted thousands of South Africans and world leaders.

Charles is representing the Queen after Buckingham Palace confirmed that the 87-year-old monarch would not make the journey to South Africa for the ceremonies to mark Mr Mandela's death.

After the former statesman's death, Charles described Mr Mandela as the "embodiment of courage and reconciliation" and said his passing had left "an immense void" in the lives of everyone who had been affected by his fight for justice and freedom.

The South African and Union flags are being flown at half-mast above 10 Downing Street today to mark the ceremony.

Mr Mandela's body arrived in Qunu in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa yesterday as large numbers of people lined the roads to pay their respects as the cortege passed by.

His coffin, draped in the country's national flag, had earlier been carried from a farewell service in Pretoria and onto a military plane, escorted by two fighter jets.

This morning, South African military honour guards marched and stood at attention on a dirt road at the Mandela family compound ahead of the funeral.

After the ceremony, a smaller group of mourners will attend his burial at a family grave site on the estate.

Preparations for Mr Mandela's funeral were marred by a public spat between the South African government and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most prominent survivors in the long anti-apartheid struggle.

Mr Tutu, a Nobel laureate who has strongly criticised the current government, will attend after earlier saying he would not, despite wanting to pay respects to his long-time friend.

He had said he was not invited - an apparent snub that the South African government vehemently denies.

At least 100,000 people saw Mr Mandela's body lying in state in Pretoria over three days this week, but some had to be turned away.

The 95-year-old former leader, who was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid before emerging in 1990 to forge a new democratic South Africa, died on December 5.

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