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Tonga's king dies at age 88, son succeeds

Written by: Staff
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WELLINGTON, Sep 11 (Reuters) The King of Tonga in the South Pacific, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, died in a New Zealand hospital at the age of 88, and has been succeeded by his eldest son.

The monarch died late yesterday night surrounded by members of the royal family after a long period of ill health.

''Kuo to 'a e la'a 'o e 'Otu Tonga: The sun has set in the Kingdom of Tonga,'' a statement from the royal palace said.

The Prince Regent, 57-year-old Crown Prince Tupouto'a, was sworn in as the new king, Tupou V, today, although a coronation was expected to be as much as a year away, Lord Chamberlain Fielakepa said.

Buildings in the capital, Nukua'alofa, were being draped in black and purple, traditional colours of mourning.

King Tupou IV had been in New Zealand for medical treatment since April, briefly returning to Tonga for his 88th birthday on July 4, before returning to an Auckland hospital.

The royal palace said the late king would lie in state in Auckland tomorrow, before his body was flown back by a New Zealand Airforce plane on Wednesday.

A royal funeral would be held on Sept. 19, with a month of official mourning declared.

Tonga is the South Pacific's last monarchy, where the royal family controls a semi-feudal political system.

UNIFORMS AND TAXIS The new king is known for his liking for wearing military uniforms, and for driving around in a London taxi.

Tonga, a group of 170 coral islands sprinkled across the South Pacific about 2,000 km (1,250 miles) north of New Zealand, saw unprecedented demonstrations in May 2005, when an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets to demand democracy and public ownership of key assets.

Last August, public servants staged a six-week strike over pay that halted services at hospitals and schools.

King Tupou IV had ruled the small nation of around 105,000 people, dubbed the friendly islands by British explorer James Cook, since 1965.

He made international headlines in 1976 when he became the world's heaviest monarch, tipping the Tonga airport scales, the only scales in the country that could hold him, at 462 pounds (209 kgs). Obesity is a major problem in the island kingdom.

The Guiness World Records (www.guinessworldrecords.com) says the king was reported to have slimmed down to 308 pounds (139 kgs) by 1985. By 1998 he had lost further weight, and had urged his subjects to keep fit.

The editor of the Matangi Tonga magazine, Sione Fonua, said the king would be remembered for helping to modernise the country, while preserving its culture.

''His Majesty's vision was the right prescription at the right time for a country still yet merged in feudal and common thinking,'' Fonua wrote in an editorial on the magazine's Web site.

Tonga's economy depends on subsistence farming, tourism and fishing.

REUTERS DKB HT1200

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