NAIROBI (Reuters) - Thousands of Kenyans paid their respects to Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai on Saturday at a state funeral held in a park where she had once been beaten up for holding a protest.

Maathai became the first African woman to win the peace prize in 2004 for her battle to defend women's rights and protect the country's environment.

On Saturday, thousands lined the streets of Nairobi between Uhuru Park and a crematorium where Maathai was to be cremated in a private ceremony.

"Hero, hero. We'll never get anyone like you," a Kenyan woman chanted outside the crematorium.

Kenyan leaders bid farewell to Maathai at the park's Freedom Corner -- the spot where then-president Daniel arap Moi's security agents beat her up for pressuring the government to release political prisoners in the 1990s.

"Besides being a woman of great courage and tenacity, the late Professor Maathai demonstrated, by example, the virtue of selfless service to the nation," President Mwai Kibaki told the crowd at Uhuru Park, where Maathai's protests in 1989 forced Moi to abandon plans to build an office tower.

Maathai died on September 25 at the age of 71 after a long struggle with ovarian cancer. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to plant trees to prevent environmental and social conditions deteriorating and hurting poor people, especially women, living in rural Kenya.

She endured being whipped, tear-gassed and threatened with death for her devotion to Africa's forests and her desire to end the corruption that often spells their destruction.

This week, the Oslo-based Nobel Committee awarded its annual Peace Prize to a Yemeni and two Liberian female campaigners, one of whom is Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

"Today we say farewell to an outstanding African woman," Norway's ambassador to Kenya, Per Ludvig Magnus, said.

Earlier, Maathai's family planted an Olea Africana tree in Uhuru Park and Prime Minister Raila Odinga declared her as one of the "greatest heroes of our country."

In 1999, Maathai was beaten and whipped by guards during a protest against the sale of public land in Karura Forest in Nairobi which covers more than 1,000 hectares and is home to wildlife as duiker, antelopes and civets.

"The death has brought a very huge blow to our conservation efforts," Harriet Muli, a Nairobi resident who stood by as Maathai's hearse passed by. "She was the only one who really cared about it without any fear."

(Additional reporting by Reuters Television and George Obulutsa; Writing by Yara Bayoumy Editing by Maria Golovnina)