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Middle East: Palestinians Mourn Arafat's Death As World Leaders React

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died early today in a French military hospital at the age of 75. No cause of death was given for the former guerrilla leader and Palestinian Authority president. He had been in the hospital, outside of Paris, since 29 October -- and in a coma for the past few days. Although the news was widely expected, reaction has still been strong.

11 November 2004 -- Palestinians are mourning the death of Yasser Arafat, their leader in the struggle for an independent state.

Arafat is to be flown to Cairo for a funeral ceremony tomorrow. On 13 November, he is expected to be buried in Ramallah, the West Bank city where he had his headquarters.

Israel has sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, fearing violence from Palestinian mourners who earlier flooded the streets on news of Arafat's passing.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Arafat aide, expressed the grief of the Palestinians. "The Palestinian people, with the loss of their leader, Yasser Arafat, they feel that they have an obligation to honor him as the founder of the Palestinian national movement, to honor him as the greatest person in modern history, who had given his life in order to give his people freedom and independence," Rabbo said.

Palestinian leaders have proclaimed a 40-day mourning period.

"The farewell ceremony for Yasser Arafat will take place tomorrow in Cairo with the participation of leaders coming from the Arab world and internationally and, after [tomorrow], the burial procedures will take place here in his headquarters in Ramallah," Rabbo said.

In Ramallah, the Palestine Liberation Organization chose Mahmud Abbas to succeed Arafat as chief. Parliament speaker Rauhi Fattouh was sworn in as president of the Palestinian Authority for 60 days, until elections can be held.

In their reactions, world leaders have been largely laudatory of Arafat -- while others have sought to balance praise with cautious criticism.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Arafat's death could mark what he called a "turning point" in the Middle East. "The latest events are likely to present a historic turning point in the Middle East," he said. "Israel, which is a country that desires peace, will continue its efforts to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians without delay."

But Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was more blunt. "The grief at Yasser Arafat's death is not necessarily our grief," he said. "But we respect the grieving of the Palestinians who are in pain at their leader's death."

U.S. President George W. Bush -- who in recent years had acted to sideline Arafat -- struck a conciliatory tone, saying Arafat's death is a significant moment in Palestinian history. Bush said he hopes the future will see the fulfillment of the Palestinian people's aspirations for an independent and democratic Palestine at peace with its neighbors.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged having what he called "differences" with Arafat, but praised the Palestinian leader for leading his people to a "historic acceptance" of the need for a two-state solution. "Well, obviously, he was a huge icon for the Palestinian people. There is no doubt about that at all, and whatever differences we had with him, I think it is right to recognize that," Blair said.

French President Jacques Chirac said Arafat was a man of courage and conviction who embodied the Palestinian struggle for statehood. Chirac extended the friendship of the French people and said France remains committed to the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Arafat's death a deep loss for the Palestinian leadership and for all Palestinians.

Amr Musa, secretary-general of the Arab League, expressed his group's continued support for a "viable" Palestinian state. "We hope that things fall into place and that things will move, as far as the Palestinian question is concerned. But Arafat has worked all his life for this Palestinian cause, and we'll continue to support the rights of the Palestinians for statehood, for a viable state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza," Musa said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul echoed those comments in Istanbul. "The Palestinian state will take its place in the region. Once again, I express the Turkish people's condolences to the Palestinian people," Gul said. "Our government and state's support to the Palestinian cause will go on."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Arafat will be remembered for leading Palestinians to accept the principle of peaceful co-existence between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

(compiled from wire reports)