11/11/2004, 00.00
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President Yasser Arafat dies

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - Veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has died in a French hospital, nearly two weeks after being transferred from the West Bank.

Early this morning, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said  that Arafat had died. The official announcement came 15 minutes later outside the French military hospital where Arafat had been treated since being airlifted to Paris on Oct. 29. "Mr. Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, has died at the Percy Military Training Hospital in Clamart on Nov. 11, 2004, at 3:30," hospital spokesman Gen. Christian Estripeau told reporters

The 75-year-old leader dominated Palestinian politics for 40 years. He forced the world to listen to his people's plight , putting the Palestinian rights into the world spotlight, but failed to achieve his lifelong quest for Palestinian statehood,.

His body is to be flown to the Egyptian capital Cairo for a funeral, attended by Arab leaders and other guests.  He will then be taken to the West Bank town of Ramallah, where he will be buried at his compound.  Flags were flying at half mast outside Mr Arafat's compound, where he had been kept under virtual house arrest by the Israelis for two-and-a-half years.  "This is a black day in our history, and we grieve today for the death of our president," said Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. There is no clear line of succession to the Palestinian leadership following Mr Arafat's death.

Palestinian leaders have agreed a plan to prevent a power struggle and chaos in the volatile Gaza Strip.  Hours after Arafat death's, Palestinian parliamentary speaker, Rawhi Fattuh, took over as president of the Palestinian Authority until elections are held in 60 days. "We can be certain transition will be smooth, and the Palestinian people deserve to have free and fair elections," Erekat said.  Mr Erekat called on Palestinians to "unite" and ensure a smooth transition to a new leadership.

Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh flew into the Egyptian capital on Wednesday to make arrangements for a state funeral there. The decision to hold the funeral in Egypt is seen as a compromise solution, enabling Arab leaders and other guests to attend without the complication of travelling to the West Bank or Gaza. Mr Arafat had many admirers but also made enemies in the Arab world and elsewhere.

Arafat will be buried at his West Bank headquarters in a stone coffin, not a wooden one, to allow his re-interment  at a later time at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest shrine.

Israel has ruled out a Jerusalem burial, fearing it would undermine its claims to sovereignty over all of the city. The Palestinians want to establish their capital in the eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. In a compromise, the Palestinians agreed to have Arafat buried at the Muqata, but said the compound would only be his temporary grave.

"The final resting place will be the Al Aqsa Mosque," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "One of these days, we will have a Palestinian state, and President Arafat will be laid to rest (in Jerusalem)."
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