Arafat's solemn final voyage home

12th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 11 (AFP) - France sent Yasser Arafat on his final voyage home Thursday, ceremoniously loading the body of the late Palestinian leader onto a flight to Cairo and ultimately burial at his West Bank headquarters.

PARIS, Nov 11 (AFP) - France sent Yasser Arafat on his final voyage home Thursday, ceremoniously loading the body of the late Palestinian leader onto a flight to Cairo and ultimately burial at his West Bank headquarters.

A French government Airbus plane carrying the coffin of the 75-year-old Palestinian Authority president, draped in a Palestinian flag, took off from a military airport on the outskirts of Paris headed for the Egyptian capital, where a funeral service was to be held Friday ahead of the interment.

Arafat's crying widow Suha and French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin led dignitaries in a short and solemn ceremony at the Villacoublay airport as the body was carried to the jet by a French honour guard while the Palestinian and French anthems were played.

Hundreds of mourners, many of them from France's five-million-strong Muslim community, crowded outside the airport as the proceedings, broadcast live internationally, took place.

Arafat - a symbol of the Palestinian people's struggle for statehood over the past four decades - was declared dead early Thursday after nearly two weeks of treatment at the Percy military hospital on the outskirts of Paris.

President Jacques Chirac, who personally took the decision to accept Arafat on October 29 after the Palestinian leader fell gravely ill at his Ramallah compound, visited the hospital before the body was moved.

"I came to bow before president Yasser Arafat and pay him a final homage," Chirac told journalists after his 25-minute visit.

A diagnosis of Arafat's illness was never disclosed, and the military doctors who treated him refused to make public the cause of death.

A spokesman for the French military's medical service, Christian Estripeau, told AFP that "I have no declaration to make" about Arafat's cause of death. "It is not up to the defence forces' health service to reveal information given to the family," he said.

Suha Arafat - a French-educated Palestinian 34 years younger than Arafat - restricted the release of her husband's medical information and limited bedside visits to a handful of Palestinian officials.

Arafat slipped into a coma a week ago amid reports from some French medical sources that he was brain dead and on life support machines. The coma was said to have deepened earlier this week.

Chirac, who came and went by a hospital side entrance, said he extended his "sincerest condolences" to Suha during his 25-minute visit, and addressed "a message of friendship and solidarity to the Palestinian people".

He added: "France, of course, will continue to tirelessly act for peace and security in the Middle East and will do so with respect for the rights of the Palestinian and Israeli people."

Chirac did not attend the ceremony at the Villacoublay military airport.

His foreign minister, Michel Barnier, was to represent France at the funeral ceremony Friday in a mosque in Cairo, Arafat's birthplace. Other European countries were also to send their foreign ministers, while the heads of state of several Muslim countries were to attend.

After Friday's service, an Egyptian military helicopter was to fly Arafat's body to Ramallah, where the Palestinian leader had been kept a virtual prisoner for nearly three years by Israel up to his emergency evacuation to Paris.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner told French radio station RMC that he hoped the burial would take place "calmly" as thousands of Arafat supporters flooded onto the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, chanting in honour of their iconic leader.

Pazner added: "I can just express our hope here in Israel that this has closed a chapter and opened a new page."

Israel has steadfastly refused to accede to Arafat's wishes to be buried in the city which Palestinians want as the capital of their promised future state.

Arafat's death was announced shortly after 0400 GMT, first by Palestinian ministers in Ramallah and then by French medical authorities in Paris.

Estripeau read a short statement to journalists saying: "Mr Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, died at Percy military hospital at Clamart on November 11 at 3:30 am (0230 GMT)."

In an earlier statement, Chirac hailed Arafat as "a man of courage and conviction" and promised that France would put its full weight into helping Israel and a future independent Palestinian state exist side by side.

France has long supported the Palestinian cause and, through the European Union, has played a key role in international efforts to bring about an elusive peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It kept up contacts with Arafat despite attempts by Israel and the United States to sideline the elected Palestinian president from negotiations, and a June visit by Barnier to Arafat's compound over Israel's protests underlined the relationship.

On France's Europe 1 radio, Palestinan deputy foreign minister Ilan Halevi said from Ramallah that he believed Arafat died a natural death.

Responding to rumours that a decision to bring his life to a premature end by taking him off a life-support machine had been made after 13 days in the military hospital, Halevi said: "No, I don't believe it was switched off.

"I believe they allowed him to die without intervening because there was nothing more they could do to save him."


Subject: French News

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