Zimbabwe's founder Robert Mugabe was honoured as an icon, principled leader and African intellectual giant at a state funeral, after a week of disputes over his burial threatened to embarrass President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mr Mugabe led Zimbabwe for 37 years, from independence until he was removed from power by the army in November 2017, by which time he was viewed by many at home and abroad as a power-obsessed autocrat who unleashed death squads, rigged elections and ruined the economy to keep control.

He died in a Singapore hospital on 6 September aged 95, far away from a country he left polarised by a raging political rivalry between its two largest political parties, ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC.

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His remains will be interred in a mausoleum at the National Heroes Acre in the capital Harare in about 30 days, his nephew said yesterday, contradicting earlier comments that a burial would be held tomorrow.

Mr Mnangagwa walked behind the casket carrying Mr Mugabe's body as it was wheeled into the centre of Harare's National Sports Stadium this morning and placed on a podium.

The 60,000 seater stadium was only half-filled.

In a tribute to his predecessor, Mr Mnangagwa said Mr Mugabe stood in defence of Africans. 

He urged the West to remove sanctions that were imposed during Mr Mugabe's rule.

"We who remain shall continue to hear his rich, brave, defiant and inspiring voice ... encouraging and warning us to be vigilant and astute," Mr Mnangagwa said in a speech."A giant tree of Africa has fallen. Today Africa weeps."

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Mr Mnangagwa and the ruling ZANU-PF party wanted Mr Mugabe buried at the national shrine to heroes of the 15-year liberation war against white minority rule. 

But some relatives, expressing bitterness at the way former comrades removed Mr Mugabe, had pushed for him to be buried in his home village.

Walter Chidhakwa, who spoke on behalf of Mugabe's family, said Mr Mugabe was an icon who was determined and unflinching in pursuing policies like land reform and later the black economic empowerment programme.

Mr Mugabe left behind a country wrecked by hyperinflation, dollarisation and deeply entrenched corruption.

But many Zimbabweans also remember him as their country's liberator from white minority rule and for broadening people's access to education and land.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was booed by the crowd in the stadium after a wave of deadly riots and xenophobic attacks in South Africa earlier this month that triggered international anger. 

The attacks mainly targeted shops owned by African migrants.

The master of ceremony was forced to appeal to the crowd to give Mr Ramaphosa a chance to speak.

"I stand before you as a fellow African to express my regret and to apologise for what has happened in our country," Mr Ramaphosa said, to cheering from the crowd.

Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta called Mr Mugabe an intellectual giant, "a visionary leader and a relentless champion of African dignity."

Other heads of state who attended today's funeral included long-ruling leaders from Equatorial Guinea and Congo while China, Russia and Cuba, which supported Zimbabwe's liberation movements that fought white minority rule, were represented by officials.

Prominent officials from Western countries, which were critical of Mugabe's rule, did not feature in the official funeral programme.

Mr Mnangagwa led heads of state in viewing Mugabe's body, which was followed by a military 21-gun salute.

Banners at the stadium where Mr Mugabe's body lay in state read "Hamba kahle, Gushungo," (go well, Gushungo)", a reference to his clan name, and "Go well our revolutionary icon".

Mr Mugabe's death has made some Zimbabweans question what Mr Mnangagwa has achieved in his two years in power.

His government has taken steps to cut the budget deficit, remove subsidies on fuel and power and repeal laws curbing public and media freedoms, but those reforms and austerity measures have compounded ordinary people's hardships.