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Arafat's funeral under way in Cairo
Updated: 2004-11-12 17:08

The world bid farewell to Yasser Arafat as a military funeral for the veteran Palestinian leader began in Cairo attended by foreign dignitaries but closed to the public.

Brief prayers led by Egypt's top Muslim cleric, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi were held in a small mosque inside the Al-Galaa military compound and joined by foreign dignitaries as Arafat's coffin lay facing Mecca, draped in a Palestinian flag.

The coffin was then carried onto a hearse on the military complex, as world leaders gathered for a short funeral procession.

Palestinian honour guards stand in formation ahead of funeral of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, inside Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 12, 2004. [Reuters]
Palestinian honour guards stand in formation ahead of funeral of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, inside Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 12, 2004. [Reuters]
Short of the massive popular funeral Arafat might have hoped for, the ceremony was held under tight security, far from the crowds of central Cairo where Arafat was born 75 years ago.

The Al-Galaa military complex in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis where Arafat once lived as a young man was completely sealed off by thousands of black-clad policemen deployed shoulder-to-shoulder.

The windows of neighbouring buildings were kept shut for security reasons, as Egypt prepared for its highest-profile funeral since the death of former president Ahmed Sadat in 1981.

Roads were closed to the traffic in the Egyptian capital, whose streets were deserted as people marked the last Friday of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and prepared to watch the Palestinian leader's funeral on television.

The coffin of the veteran leader, who died in a military hospital near Paris early Thursday at the age of 75, arrived in Egypt late Thursday on an official French aircraft.

The funeral arrangements for Arafat, whose life had come to symbolise the decades-old Palestinian struggle for a homeland, highlighted the region's divisions even after his death.

He had expressed a wish to be laid to rest in Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their promised future state, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon categorically ruled out that possibility.

A fully-fledged funeral attended by the world's leaders also appeared impossible in the Palestinian territories, where tough restrictions have been imposed by Israel during the four-year-old uprising.

After days of bitter behind-the-scenes wrangling before the announcement of Arafat's death in a Paris hospital Thursday, all sides agreed to a compromise consisting of a funeral in Egypt and a burial inside the Ramallah compound where he spent the last three years of his life under virtual house arrest.

Palestinian negotiations minister Saeb Erakat has said the arrangement was temporary and that the goal was still for Arafat's body to be eventually laid to rest at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest site.

Arafat was born in Egypt in 1929. He spent most of his youth here and the Palestine Liberation Organisation he headed until his death was set up in Cairo in 1964.

The arrangement also serves Egypt's image as a Palestinian ally and key regional player.

Heading the Palestinian delegation at the funeral will be Mahmud Abbas, who succeeded Arafat at the helm of the PLO and co-founded the ruling Fatah party with the late Palestinian leader in 1959.

The radical Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas, which has been Arafat's staunchest opponent on the internal political scene in recent years, was to be represented by the leader of its Damascus-based politburo Khaled Meshaal.

Among the heads of state representing their countries will be Jordan's King Abdullah, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as well as Presidents Iajuddin Ahmed of Bangladesh and newly-elected Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia.

Scores of foreign ministers will also make the journey for the highest-profile gathering of international leaders in the region since the funeral of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in 2000.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, Spanish Foreign Minister and former European envoy to the Middle East Miguel Angel Moratinos were also expected to attend.

France's top diplomat Michel Barnier arrived on Thursday night and voiced his hope that Arafat's passing would herald fresh efforts from the international community to tackle the prickly Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Washington, which is sending its special Middle East envoy William Burns to the funeral, has backed every Israeli move to sideline Arafat over the past three years.

No Israeli officials will attend Friday's ceremony.

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