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Annan pays tribute to slain envoy, pledges U.N. will remain in Iraq

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan paid tearful tribute Saturday to his slain Iraq envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, vowing during his moving wake in Brazil that the United Nations will remain in Iraq despite the attack that demolished its Baghdad headquarters.

U.S. forces in Iraq believe an attack by a suicide bomber brought down much of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad where most U.N. operations were located. The attack on Tuesday killed at least 23 people, including Annan's close friend Vieira de Mello.

Vieira de Mello, 55, reluctantly accepted the temporary post in Iraq as a favor to Annan, taking leave from his job as the U.N. high commissioner on refugees. Annan traveled half way around the world to participate in Saturday's wake, held in Vieira de Mello's birthplace of Rio de Janeiro.

Annan told mourners Vieira de Mello's death only strengthens U.N. resolve to remain in Iraq.

"His work there is left unfinished. But, please God, we shall complete it. His dying wish was that the United Nations mission not be pulled out. Let us respect that," said Annan, flanked by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. "Let Sergio, who has given his life in that cause, find a fitting memorial in a free and sovereign Iraq."

During the emotional ceremony, in which Annan shed tears, Vieira de Mello's elderly mother Gilda sobbed uncontrollably as she hugged a casket draped in Brazil's green and yellow flag. Annan and President da Silva tried to console her.

"You should think of Sergio as a national hero," da Silva said.

At the close of the service, Annan covered the wooden casket with the blue United Nations flag.

"Sergio, my friend, you have entered the pantheon of fallen heroes that the United Nations wishes it did not have. You will shine forever among our brightest stars. May you rest in peace," Annan said, with tears in his eyes.

Vieira de Mello was widely viewed as a potential successor to Annan as U.N. secretary general. Over a career spanning more than three decades, he worked in hotspots such as Mozambique, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Congo. Most recently, he helped East Timor transition to independence from Indonesia.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+annan