2,000 invited to Thatcher funeral

LONDON (AFP) – Britain was printing invitations Thursday for 2,000 people for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, ranging from all of the surviving US presidents and British prime ministers to celebrities including “Top Gear” host Jeremy Clarkson.

But great figures from Thatcher’s Cold War era, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-German chancellor Helmut Kohl and former US president Ronald Reagan’s widow Nancy, will all be absent due to ill health.

Argentina meanwhile downplayed Britain’s decision not to invite President Cristina Kirchner in a sign of the tensions that still exist between the two countries following the 1982 Falklands War, regarded by the Iron Lady herself as her finest hour.

Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip have already confirmed they will attend next Wednesday’s ceremonial funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral — the first time the monarch has attended the funeral of one of her prime ministers since Winston Churchill in 1965.

Thatcher died in London’s Ritz Hotel on Monday at the age of 87, after suffering a stroke. She was Britain’s first female prime minister and was in office from 1979 to 1990.

Invitations to the funeral would be printed Thursday and would start being dispatched on Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Downing Street office said, as it released an initial list of invitees and those who have accepted.

“The guest list has been drawn up by Lady Thatcher’s family and representatives with the assistance of the government and the Conservative party. It is expected that over 2,000 invitations will be sent out,” it said.

“There are invitations being made in a personal capacity to some current and former world leaders as well as others from overseas who had a close connection to Baroness Thatcher.”

A representative of Nelson Mandela’s family is among those invited, it said, although the 94-year-old former South African president, whose African National Congress Thatcher once called a “terrorist” group, is likely to be too frail to attend.

Former South African president FW De Klerk, European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, ex-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and former Australian premier John Howard will also get invites.

Celebrities including singing diva Shirley Bassey, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and Clarkson, presenter of the BBC television motoring programme “Top Gear”, have already accepted invitations, Downing Street added.

Writers Frederick Forsyth and Jeffrey Archer — a former Conservative politician jailed for perjury — are also on the list.

A representative of the Reagan family had been invited, the statement said, but there was no immediate word on whether US presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush would attend. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has also been invited.

The dress code for the funeral is described as “full day ceremonial without swords”, morning dress or a dark suit for men or a day dress with hat, while “medals and decorations may be worn”.

It starts at 1000 GMT on Wednesday.

Downing Street said it had invited the Argentine ambassador to London but specifically said it had not invited President Kirchner, whose rhetoric over the disputed Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic has heated up since the discovery of oil in nearby waters.

Thatcher’s coffin will be borne by military personnel from units associated with the 1982 conflict.

But Argentina downplayed the decision.

“Who cares whether you are invited to some place you had no intention of going to?” Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said.

Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader with whom Thatcher had warm relations, had told the government he was unable to attend due to health reasons, a Downing Street spokesman told AFP.

Nancy Reagan was also too frail to attend, a spokeswoman said.

Kohl, 83, the former German chancellor, meanwhile told the Times newspaper that ill health would prevent him from coming.

But in a parting shot he said that Thatcher’s hostility towards a closer Europe is the root cause of ongoing “antagonism” between Britain and the EU.

Thatcher’s legacy also remains divisive in Britain, where opponents accuse her of ruining millions of lives with her free-market economic reforms and destroying the fabric of society.

Many lawmakers from the opposition Labour party shunned a special session of parliament on Wednesday in her honour.

Her supporters are championing for some sort of public memorial but Cameron cooled speculation.

“I think we should take some time and think about this,” he told Sky News.

Police said meanwhile they wanted to make contact with protesters planning demonstrations at funeral after several rowdy “Thatcher death parties” on Monday.

“I would ask anyone who wishes to demonstrate then, or in the coming days, to come and talk to us,” said Commander Christine Jones, the officer in charge of the operation.

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