NEW DELHI, Sept 9 — Commonwealth leaders from around the world hailed Queen Elizabeth II as an inspiring, dignified and extraordinary leader after the British monarch’s death at the age of 96.

The queen became head of the Commonwealth of Nations, a group largely made up of former British Empire territories that spans six continents, after her accession to the throne in 1952.

Many of the bloc’s 56 member countries won their independence during her reign as decolonisation movements gained ground throughout Africa and Asia, including some nations with raw memories of colonial rule.

But Commonwealth leaders throughout the world were quick to praise the queen as a gracious monarch who presided over a momentous era in history and demonstrated great political acumen in her state dealings.

“I will never forget her warmth and kindness,” said India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

She had provided “inspiring leadership to her nation and people”, he tweeted, recalling a meeting in Britain where she showed him a handkerchief given to her at her wedding by Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi.

In neighbouring Pakistan, President Arif Alvi remembered the queen as a “great and beneficent ruler” whose departure had left an immense vacuum.

Elizabeth II “would be remembered in golden words in the annals of world history”, he added.

Maldives President Mohamed Ibrahim Solih said the queen was a “shining example of public service, resilience and devotion to one’s country”.

Australian Prime Minster Anthony Albanese — an avowed republican — paid tribute to Elizabeth II’s “timeless decency” and said her death marked the “end of an era.” “An historic reign and a long life devoted to duty, family, faith and service has come to an end,” he said.

His New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern said she had learned of the queen’s death when a “police officer shone a torch into my room at around ten to five this morning”.

She said she had been reading some of the accounts of the queen’s ill health before going to bed, so “when that torchlight came into my room I knew immediately what it meant”.

“I am profoundly sad,” she added.

Canadian premier Justin Trudeau said the queen would “forever remain an important part” of his country’s history.

“She was a constant presence in our lives,” he said, adding that the monarch would be remembered for her “wisdom, compassion and warmth”.

‘Etched on our hearts’

The leader of Malawi, where Elizabeth II reigned as sovereign before it transitioned to a republic in 1966, said he had “fond memories” of hosting the queen during a royal tour the following decade.

“Her inimitable legacy as a friend of Malawi will forever be etched on our hearts and indelibly marked in the pages of our history, a history she positively shaped in more ways than we can put into words,” said President Lazarus Chakwera.

And the president of Zimbabwe, which withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003 after its suspension over human rights concerns, and endured decades of frosty relations with its former colonial ruler, offered his own sympathies to the British public.

“May she rest in peace,” wrote President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

‘Will it survive?’

In recent years, the Commonwealth has opened its doors to countries that were never British colonies, as it seeks to maintain its relevance in a changing world.

Its members now include former Portuguese colony Mozambique, and its two most recent new members Gabon and Togo, which joined on June 25, were once ruled by France.

“Queen Elizabeth II was a great friend of Africa and Africa was affectionate towards her in return,” said Gabonese president Ali Bongo.

The monarch had been a “driving force” in the Commonwealth, said Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations at King’s India Institute in London.

Her death would raise questions over the grouping’s future, he told AFP: “So what happens to that Commonwealth now: will it survive going forward?” — AFP