WASHINGTON- The death Thursday of South Africa's liberation leader and first democratic president Nelson Mandela triggered an unprecedented worldwide chorus of awed respect.
Statesmen, resistance leaders, Nobel laureates and prisoners of conscience have died before, but never had one man united such global unity in honoring his passing.
Foreshadowing the guest list of what will surely be the most important funeral of recent decades, world leaders queued up to issue solemn tributes to the 95-year-old anti-apartheid leader.
"He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages," US President Barack Obama said, in a deliberate echo of an early tribute paid to Abraham Lincoln, the American leader who emancipated the slaves.
Over and over, leaders returned to the dignity Mandela displayed during his long imprisonment by South Africa's former racist regime and then later, when he led his country to majority rule.
"We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," said Obama, America's first black president, citing Mandela's release from prison as one of his own early political inspirations.
Speaking on behalf of the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared Mandela a "giant for justice."
"Many around the world were influenced by his selfless struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom. He touched our lives in deeply personal ways," Ban told reporters.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 2006 apologised for what he said were the "mistakes" of his Conservative Party in its response to apartheid in Britain's former colony, was also moved.
"A great light has gone out in the world," he said in Downing Street.