Arafat buried after mourners give him emotional farewell

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat was laid to rest in a marble-and-stone grave today after his flag-draped coffin was borne through a sea of emotional Palestinians who swarmed the helicopter that brought him from a state funeral in Egypt.

Police fired wildly into the air to keep back the surging crowd at the West Bank compound known as the Muqata, where Arafat spent his last years as a virtual prisoner.

After Arafat's body was lowered into the ground, Muslim clerics read Quranic verses and the late leader's bodyguards wept and embraced each other.

Frantic mourners surged toward the tomb as clerics recited prayers, trampling the olive tree saplings the were planted around the grave according to Islamic tradition. One policeman knelt on the marble and kissed the tombstone.

Officials tried for 25 minutes to open the helicopter door to remove the coffin onto a jeep that had plowed through the crowd to clear a path.

As the coffin was carried toward the gravesite, police jumped on top of it, waved their arms and flashed the victory sign. People chanted, "With our blood and our soul we will redeem you Yasser Arafat!"

Stretchers carried away two people who were trampled in the melee.

Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the PLO, and Omar Suleiman, Egypt's director of intelligence, tried to emerge from the helicopter, but were kept back by the huge, chaotic crowd.

"President Arafat would have wanted it this way, with exhilaration, feelings of loyalty, pain, sadness and love all at once," Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi told The Associated Press. "The people reclaimed him. They wanted to say goodbye without distance."

Under the crush of the screaming mourners, plans were hastily scrapped for a stately ceremony with Palestinian officials filing past his coffin.

"It is not what we expected," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, who travelled in the Egyptian military helicopter with Arafat's coffin. "At the same time, we had to do the burial before sunset in Islamic tradition. ... I expected much better, more organised, but things got out of hand, unfortunately."

The red, white, green and black flag was ripped off the casket as it was carried through the crowd.

The failure of police to control the pandemonium augured poorly for Palestinian hopes to maintain calm and order in the wake of Arafat's death.

Earlier, people burst through gates of the Muqata and climbed over walls to pay their final respects to the man who embodied their dreams of statehood.

As Arafat's helicopter landed, the crowd cried out "Welcome, welcome Abu Ammar!" using his nom de guerre. "Welcome, welcome old man!"

Armed policemen had tried for several hours to keep people back, but mourners, eager to get close to the gravesite, pushed their way through. Police scrambled to keep people off the landing pad.

Buildings and windshields in the West Bank and Gaza were plastered with Arafat's photo and people waved black and white scarves, the colors of the late leader's Fatah movement.

In Gaza City, hundreds gathered on rooftops, streets and apartment balconies in hopes of catching a glimpse of Arafat's helicopter. Barred from attending the burial, tens of thousands of Gaza residents held rallies and symbolic funerals across the strip.

A small group of masked gunmen marched into the Muqata, ignoring calls from official Palestine TV not to carry arms or mask faces, as is common in Palestinian funerals during times of crisis. However, the gunmen calmly submitted to inspection by plainclothes security personnel who ensured there were no bullets in the chambers.

The cooperation between militants and policemen was a likely reflection of Palestinians' desire for consensus in the wake of Arafat's death.

The 75-year-old Arafat, who led the Palestinians for four decades, died on Thursday at a Paris hospital from an undisclosed illness that had plunged him into a week-long coma. He had spent his final three years confined to his Ramallah headquarters never leaving out of fear the Israelis wouldn't allow him back in.

In Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian youths scuffled with Israeli police outside the al-Aqsa mosque - the third holiest site in Islam - after police barred them from prayers amid fear of riots and unrest during Arafat's funeral.

Israeli police, ordered to stay on the sidelines of the burial, were on their highest state of alert and canceled all leaves, worried that the prayers for the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, together with mourning for Arafat, would get out of control.

Egypt gave Arafat a state funeral in Cairo, even though he never realised his dream of Palestinian statehood.

The service began amid heavy security with humble prayers at a mosque in a military compound and ended with a procession, his flag-draped wooden casket set on a horse-drawn gun carriage and followed by a crowd of presidents and kings.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as well as Abbas and Farouk Kaddoumi, the newly chosen leader of the Fatah organization, were among the dignitaries who marched behind the casket on a residential street a short distance toward a military airfield. Doors and shutters of homes along the route were closed, and the street was cut off to the public.

Arafat's veiled widow, Suha, and their rarely seen 9-year-old daughter, Zahwa, wept as the Palestinian and Egyptian national anthems were played by a band before the casket was loaded aboard an Egyptian military plane.

Among the dignitaries who attended the Cairo ceremony were Syrian President Bashar Assad, Sultan Hasanal Bolkiah of Brunei, South African President Thabo Mbeki, European Union Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana and Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church.

The United States, which had labeled Arafat an obstacle to peace, sent Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. Israel sent no delegation.

"Yasser Arafat was more important for Palestinian identity than their flag and their national anthem," said Terje Roed-Larsen, UN envoy for the Middle East and a key player in the talks that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accord, in an interview to The Associated Press at the funeral service.

He said he hoped the new Palestinian leadership would return to peace negotiations with Israel.

Before the chaotic scenes at the Muqata, workers raked sand to level the ground as they laid gray marble slabs around the base of tomb. The Palestinians consider the gravesite temporary - a place for Arafat's body until they can honour his request to be buried in Jerusalem.