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Preparations gather pace for Thatcher funeral


Preparations for Margaret Thatcher's funeral stepped up Monday with a full military rehearsal, while it was announced London's famous Big Ben chimes will fall silent in a rare mark of respect.

Hundreds of troops solemnly processed through the streets of the capital at dawn, practising their roles in Wednesday's ceremonial funeral for the former British prime minister.

More than 700 troops took part as a coffin draped in the British flag was carried on a horse-drawn gun carriage to St Paul's Cathedral, as a handful of early-morning commuters looked on.

Meanwhile John Bercow, speaker of the lower House of Commons, announced that the Big Ben bell and the chimes of the Houses of Parliament would fall silent during Thatcher's funeral as a mark of respect.

In office from 1979 to 1990, Thatcher, one of the giant figures in British post-war politics, died last Monday aged 87 following a stroke.

Statesmen past and present from across the globe have confirmed they will attend her funeral.

Major Andrew Chatburn, in charge of choreographing the procession, said the pre-sunrise rehearsal "went very well".

"Timings are most important," said Chatburn, ceremonial staff officer for the Household Division, who also oversaw the procession for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.

"These are sailors, soldiers and airmen who have come in to do this specific task from their routine duties, so it's new to them.

"They need to see the ground as well so they can get a feel for how it's going to go and they can perform their duties with confidence on the day."

The procession band played funeral marches as it made its way through the deserted streets.

The coffin was carried into the cathedral by troops from all three armed services, drawn from units, stations and ships which served in the 1982 Falklands War, one of the defining moments of Thatcher's premiership.

The eight-strong bearer party includes Lance Sergeant Paul Quayle of the Scots Guards, whose father fought in the conflict.

Walking behind the coffin will be the party's commander Major Nick Mott and his warrant officer brother Bill, both Welsh Guardsmen who served in the Falklands.

In the Commons, Bercow said the most appropriate way for parliament to mark Thatcher's funeral was to silence the chimes.

The last time they were halted in tribute was for World War II prime minister Winston Churchill's state funeral in 1965.

"I believe there can be a profound dignity and deep respect both expressed in and through silence and I am sure that the House will agree," Bercow said.

A statement on behalf of Thatcher's 59-year-old twin children Mark and Carole said they wanted "to express their appreciation for the great honour accorded to their mother".

They were at the family home in Belgravia, central London, on Monday, along with Mark's children Michael, 24, and Amanda, 20.

The funeral of Britain's longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, the first Western female premier, will be one step short of a full state funeral.

Deputy Commons Speaker Nigel Evans told ITV television: "I think it is going to be done in the right way -- but pomp and ceremony is something we do awfully well."

Amid some concerns about the cost, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said: "It would be considered pretty extraordinary by many people here in the UK and abroad if we did not mark her passing in the manner that we are doing."

The guest list "says a very great deal about Lady Thatcher's global stature", he added.

The right-wing baroness remains a hate figure for some far-left activists, who have organised parties to celebrate her death.

Three of those arrested during a party in Trafalgar Square on Saturday appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court in London.

Two admitted drunk and disorderly behaviour, while another denied a charge of affray.

Of the 16 arrested for a variety of offences, only one could conceivably have voted in Thatcher's last general election in 1987, while up to four may not have been born by the time she left office.

Cameron's spokesman said the premier regarded death parties as "disgraceful".