Image: Zimbabwe's prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi  /  AP
Zimbabwe's prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai wipes tears from his eyes during a church service in memory of his wife in Harare on Tuesday. Tsvangirai's wife, Susan, was killed in a car accident last week.
updated 3/10/2009 12:28:51 PM ET 2009-03-10T16:28:51

President Robert Mugabe joined thousands of Zimbabweans mourning the wife of the prime minister Tuesday, wishing his rival-turned-coalition partner strength for the nation-building work ahead.

Mugabe addressed about 1,000 government and political leaders and diplomats at the Harare Methodist church, including Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his children.

The body of Susan Tsvangirai, who was killed in a car crash Friday, rested in a closed, flower-draped coffin.

Later, some 15,000 Zimbabweans sang hymns at the Harare fair grounds. Tsvangirai, who turned 57 on Tuesday, addressed the crowd briefly, saying: "Let's celebrate her existence as God's gift to me and you."

'Sincerely saddened'
Mugabe said the wives of politicians play important supporting roles, noting Susan Tsvangirai was by her husband's side when Mugabe administered the prime minister's oath Feb. 11.

"We are sincerely saddened by the death of Susan and we hope that Morgan will remain strong," Mugabe said at the church. He added that the new coalition government had just begun efforts to rebuild a country beset by political and economic crises.

Mugabe agreed to share power with Tsvangirai under pressure from the leaders of neighboring countries after a year of political violence and deadlock following a presidential election in which Tsvangirai won the most votes. Tsvangirai pulled out of a run-off because of state-sponsored attacks on his supporters, and Mugabe claimed victory despite widespread criticism that the second round was neither free nor fair.

Zimbabwe's long history of political violence blamed on Mugabe's forces fueled speculation that Friday's crash was not an accident. Tsvangirai, who was injured in the crash, tried to quell the rumors Monday, telling mourners there was "no foul play" in the crash.

Susan Tsvangirai's father, who addressed mourners at the church on behalf of the family, spoke of sitting down with his son-in-law recently to discuss how power-sharing would work. Emanuel Mhundwa said he had hoped to see his daughter help the prime minister "bring peace and stability to the country."

Thousands pay their respects
Hazel Makumbo, a 22-year-old Harare resident who joined the crowd outside the church Tuesday, said she wanted to pay respects to a woman who "was helping Morgan in trying to bring democracy and good things to Zimbabwe."

In recent days, thousands of Zimbabweans have paid their respects at the Tsvangirai home in the capital.

The outpouring of sympathy is evidence of support for Tsvangirai, but also a release for emotions that have been building during months of economic collapse and political unrest that has seen hundreds of activists jailed, tortured and killed.

Zimbabwe's unity government faces the world's highest official inflation rate, a hunger crisis that has left most of its people dependent on foreign handouts and a cholera epidemic blamed on the collapse of a once-enviable health and sanitation system.

The United Nations said Monday that the number of cholera deaths had topped 4,000, with more than 89,000 cases.

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