Virgin gives a lift to exiled Emperor

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Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline has agreed to help the exiled Ethiopian royal family return to Addis Ababa for the funeral service of the uncrowned emperor, who died in Washington last week.

In London, the court of the new emperor, His Royal Highness, Zera-Yakob, is urgently planning the funeral service. Zera-Yakob, who has modest houses in east-London and Manchester, is the heir to a throne that is claimed to go back to King Solomon, and which was once occupied by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Virgin Atlantic confirmed yesterday that it had been approached by members of the exiled imperial family who are mourning Amaha Selassie - son of Haile Selassie. The ancient Solomid dynasty fled to exile after a military coup led to the formation of a socialist state. Haile Selassie, regarded by many as running an opulent autocracy for more than 40 years, is believed to have been suffocated in his bed by Marxist army officers in 1975. Ethiopia has been a republic since 1995.

The return of the exiled royal family - including 25 to 30 members who live in Washington and others from London - will prove a costly operation. Zera-Yakob's spokesman said : "Contrary to popular belief, when the court fled from Ethiopia in 1974 they did not leave with vast wealth stored in international banks."

Virgin confirmed to The Independent that it had been approached and had agreed to help. A spokeswoman said: "We want to know exactly what their requirements are." Virgin does not fly to Addis Ababa, but, she said: "We could pick up from Washington to Heathrow." The airline was considering acting as intermediaries to involve others who may wish to help. Lij Mulugeta Aserate, the new emperor's cousin and official spokesman, said: "The international network of dedicated monarchists, the Conquering Lions, are assisting in this."

Zera-Yakob, 43, was educated at Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst. Answering questions through his spokesman, he said it was the dream of the 227th King of Kings (Zera-Yakob) that he will regain his throne, though he sees the constitutional monarchies of the UK and Japan as examples where "both monarchy and democracy can thrive".