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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 18:15 GMT
Arafat's body begins final return
Members of the French military bearing Yasser Arafat's coffin
France's final farewell to Arafat was solemn and dignified
A plane bearing the body of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has left France on its way to the Middle East after his death at a Paris hospital.

His coffin, draped in the Palestinian flag, was taken to a military airport, where a ceremony attended by members of the French government was held.

The plane carrying his body then took off for Cairo, where his funeral will be held on Friday.

The Palestinian Authority has declared 40 days of mourning.

Mr Arafat's widow Suha wept openly with her head bowed during the ceremony at the Villacoublay airport.

She was accompanied by French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath.

Workers clean street outside Cairo Airport's King Faisal bin Abdel Aziz Mosque
Thursday: Body is flown to Cairo, arriving late at night
Friday morning: State funeral at King Faisal Mosque near Cairo airport
Saturday: Body is interred in Ramallah compound in West Bank

As a military band played a funeral march, Mr Arafat's coffin was carried by a guard of honour to an Airbus plane bearing the livery of the French republic.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris described the ceremony as simple but dignified - a send-off fit for a head of state, as many in France saw Mr Arafat.

No members of the public were present at the airport. Earlier, crowds of Arafat supporters at Percy hospital, chanting, "We are all Palestinians", had waved candles and flags as Mr Arafat's body began its journey home.

In the West Bank, rage at the Palestinian leader's passing boiled over as Israeli troops opened fire on a group of stone-throwing protesters, shooting dead a 22-year-old Palestinian.

Soldiers killed another three Palestinians in Gaza after militants attacked a Jewish settlement.

Mystery illness

Mr Arafat, who dominated his people's struggle for 40 years, died aged 75 of multiple organ failure at 0330 (0230 GMT) on Thursday.

Israel, which saw him as a terrorist, has talked of a new chance for peace.

He had been admitted to the hospital after arriving from the West Bank on 29 October as doctors struggled to diagnose his illness.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
24 Aug 1929: Born in Cairo
1958: Founds Fatah
1969: Elected PLO chairman
1974: Addresses UN General Assembly
1982: Expelled from Lebanon by Israelis
1990: Supports Saddam Hussein during first Gulf War
1993: At the White House signs peace agreement with Israel
1994: Jointly awarded Nobel peace prize with Rabin and Peres
2001: Israel blockades him inside Ramallah headquarters
11 November 2004: Dies in a Paris hospital

On the day of his death, hospital officials would still not give the cause of his ailment, citing strict French medical privacy law.

Many world leaders have paid tribute to a man whom Russian President Vladimir Putin described as a "great political leader of international significance", while Washington merely noted that his death was "significant".

Some militants accused Israel of causing his death and a leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Raid al-Aidi, swore to avenge it:

"We hold Israel fully responsible for the assassination of our mentor and father... It was caused by the siege imposed on him."

Camps in Lebanon - home to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees - also declared 40 days of mourning and convoys of gunmen fired in the air as they drove around.

The BBC's Lucy Williamson reports from Ramallah that the outpouring of anger some predicted would follow Mr Arafat's death is for now largely absent and many talk of Mr Arafat more as a national symbol than a political player.

Funeral route

Israel sealed off the West Bank as a security precaution and strengthened security at Jewish settlements.

But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of a "turning point" for peace if the new Palestinian leadership rejected terrorism.

He was one of the best revolutionaries of the 20th Century
Belchior Silva, Luanda, Angola

Mr Arafat's powers are being divided among his officials, with Mahmoud Abbas elected head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Rawhi Fattuh sworn in as acting president of the Palestinian Authority.

Mohammed Dahlan, the influential former Gaza security chief, said the handover showed that Palestinian leaders were "carrying on with their duties in a democratic and smooth manner".

Friday's funeral ceremony will be held at a mosque near Cairo's international airport, from where a helicopter will then transfer the coffin to Ramallah.

Among the few non-Muslim heads of state or government expected to attend the funeral are South African President Thabo Mbeki and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.

Other countries, such as the UK, are sending their foreign ministers.

Bulldozers have been clearing a space at Mr Arafat's compound in Ramallah for his grave.

Officials say Mr Arafat may be interred in a stone coffin so that one day his body can be moved to Jerusalem where Palestinians hope to have the capital of a future independent state.

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