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Leaders gather in Egypt for Arafat's funeral

Palestinian leader to be buried in West Bank

Arafat's casket arrives in Egypt late Thursday evening in preparation for Friday's funeral service.
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A look back at the life and political career of Yasser Arafat.

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How the world viewed Yasser Arafat.
Will Yasser Arafat's death mark a turning point in the Middle East peace process?
Yasser Arafat

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- World leaders are gathering in Egypt for Yasser Arafat's funeral on Friday, a day after the Palestinian leader died of a lengthy and unknown illness at a Paris hospital.

A military funeral is scheduled to take place near Cairo's airport at 11 a.m. (4 a.m. ET), amid three days of official mourning in Egypt, according to a spokesman for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Arafat was born in Cairo in 1929.

Arafat's body is then expected to be taken for burial Friday to the West Bank city of Ramallah aboard an Egyptian military helicopter, the spokesman said.

On Thursday, Arafat's body was flown from a French military air base to Cairo. One of the first people off the plane was his widow, Suha Tawil.

She was dressed in all black and made her way slowly down a red carpet accompanied by other relatives. She wept as her late husband's body was brought off the plane and a military band played a solemn tune.

Eight soldiers marched slowly carrying Arafat's coffin, draped in a Palestinian flag, to a nearby hearse, while three other soldiers bearing swords led the group.

News of the Cairo memorial service prompted national leaders and representatives from around the world to travel to Egypt.

The 75-year-old Arafat had spent his life seeking a homeland for his people but was seen by Israelis as a terrorist and roadblock to peace.

"The last two days were very painful, very difficult days," said Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, who confirmed Arafat's death Thursday morning. "And now, after these painful days of President Arafat, he is dead."

Arafat died at 3:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m. Wednesday ET), days after suffering a brain hemorrhage and coma. He was admitted to the hospital October 29 with a blood ailment and digestive problems that were never clearly described.

As word spread of Arafat's death, Palestinians gathered in the streets in the West Bank and Gaza and at his former headquarters in Ramallah. (Full story)

Although his death leaves no clear successor in the often fractious world of Palestinian politics, Palestinian parliament speaker Rawhi Fattuh has been sworn in as interim president of the Palestinian Authority.

Fattuh praised Arafat's leadership, calling him "a man of peace," and promised to follow in his footsteps.

Elections to find a permanent replacement for Arafat are set to take place within 60 days.

During Arafat's illness, Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei was in charge of the Palestinian Authority, while Mahmoud Abbas led the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee.

Early Thursday, the PLO's executive committee unanimously approved Abbas, a former Palestinian prime minister, to replace Arafat as PLO chairman. (Full story)

Arafat's burial in Ramallah is scheduled to take place between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Friday. Ikrima Sabri -- the mufti, or head Muslim cleric, of Jerusalem -- will bring soil from Jerusalem with him as a ceremonial honor for Arafat, who had hoped to be buried in Jerusalem but was denied that by Israel.

Israel agreed to allow his interment at the Ramallah compound, where he had been confined for nearly three years before falling ill. (Full story)

Israel has ordered a general closure of the West Bank and Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Forces, as the region prepares for the burial. (Full story)

Main goal not achieved

Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, along with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, for their work on the Oslo accords, seen at the time as a breakthrough that could lead to an independent Palestinian state and a permanent peace.

Erakat called it "heartbreaking" that Arafat died before achieving his goal of an independent Palestinian state, "and the Israeli occupation of our land has not finished yet."

But he said Arafat managed to preserve Palestinian national identity during decades without a state of their own.

Erakat vowed that the grave in Ramallah would be temporary.

"One day, we will have our own independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital," he said.

Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly held a moment of silence for Arafat, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the world body that although Arafat died before seeing a Palestinian state, the international community must continue to strive toward that goal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to news of Arafat's death Thursday saying, "The recent events could be a historic turning point for the Middle East. Israel is a country that seeks peace and will continue in its efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians without delay.

"I hope that the new Palestinian leadership ... will understand that the advancement of the relations ... depends first and foremost on them stopping terror."

In a statement, U.S. President Bush called Arafat's death "a significant moment in Palestinian history.

"We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors. (More reaction)

Across five decades, Arafat -- adorned with his trademark checkered kaffiyeh -- was the most prominent face of Palestinian opposition to Israel, first as the head of the PLO, which carried out terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, and later as the head of the quasi-governmental Palestinian Authority, after parts of the West Bank and Gaza were returned to Palestinian control.

Arafat is survived by his widow, whom he married in 1991, and their daughter, Zahwa, who was born in 1995.

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