Uzbekistan has started three days of mourning as it buries its president, Islam Karimov, who spent 27 years in power.
Thousands of Uzbeks lined up along Tashkent’s main thoroughfare at dawn on Saturday as Karimov’s funeral cortege made its way through the city.
Karimov, who died on Friday at the age of 78 after suffering a stroke, will be buried later in the day in his hometown of Samarkand, about 300 km (185 miles) southwest of the capital.
The veteran leader has run the Central Asian nation since 1989 and nearly half of Uzbekistan’s 32 million citizens were born while he was in power.
Many mourners held flowers, mostly red roses, which they laid on the road as the funeral train, which set out at 6am (0100 GMT) drove by on its way to the airport.
“What are we going to do without you?” a weeping mourner shouted.
A 39-year-old Tashkent resident who declined to be identified said: “This was the longest and hardest week in my life … Still can’t believe it happened. Don’t know what happens now, I am lost.”
“Only as the cortege drove by I realised who we had lost,” said Usmon, 55, a teacher.
“I am in deep grief.”
In Samarkand, his coffin will be displayed in a city square from 9am for people to pay their last respects before being buried in a nearby cemetery, Russian news agencies reported, citing local officials.
Prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been designated mourner-in-chief at Karimov’s funeral, which is seen as a strong hint he might become the next president.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is expected to fly in for the funeral, along with a coterie of leaders from former Soviet republics including Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and the prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The Kremlin’s top political adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Russia expects the political situation in Uzbekistan to remain stable after the death of Karimov.
“We hope (the situation) will be stable,” Ushakov told reporters on the sidelines of a business forum in the east Russian city of Vladivostok.
Meanwhile, China’s foreign ministry called Karimov “a sincere friend” who promoted a strategic partnership between the two countries. His death “is a great loss of the Uzbek people,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, according to state media.