Arafat's body will be buried on Friday in the leadership compound where he spent the last years of his life under Israeli siege.

 

The coffin was transferred to the helicopter from a Egyptian cargo plane which left from a military airport in Cairo under the gaze of world leaders as well as the Palestinian leader's tearful widow and daughter.

 

Meanwhile, thousands of mourners overran Palestinian security forces to storm into the West Bank compound where Arafat is to be buried on Friday, witnesses told Reuters.

 

Mourners had been kept from the compound where the burial is to take place later in the day.

 

On Friday morning, Arafat's coffin, draped in a Palestinian flag, was carried by horse-drawn gun carriage to the El Arish air base in a funeral ceremony attended by world leaders.

 

Journey to Ram Allah

 

Presidents and dignitaries from more than 50 countries waited in a red-patterned tent as pallbearers placed the coffin, draped in the black, red, green and white Palestinian flag, on the traditional gun carriage.

 

The coffin, draped in the Palestinian flag, was brought from Gala military hospital and laid on carpets in a nearby mosque, where Muhammad Sayid al-Tantawi, Grand Shaikh of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque led prayers.

 

Later, the coffin was fitted on a cannon carriage pulled by six black horses, ahead of a short funeral procession leading the late leader's body to a military airport. There the coffin was loaded into a plane for the journey to Ram Allah.

 

Arafat's coffin was carried to the
airport and flown to Ram Allah

But many streets were closed off to ordinary people for the procession and were instead lined with hundreds of policemen, reflecting Egyptian concern about security for the foreign leaders. Soldiers on rooftops surveyed the area with binoculars.

   

Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, accompanied by Palestinian and Arab leaders including Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Abd Allah, led the procession which took place with military honours. Arafat's wife Suha and daughter Zahwa were at the

ceremony.

   

A group of Palestinian leaders, including Mahmud Abbas and Faruq Kaddoumi, earlier received condolences on the death of Arafat, who represented Palestinians for more than 40 years and died in a Paris military hospital on Thursday at the age of 75.

 

Dignitaries present

   

Abbas has succeeded Arafat as chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), while Kaddumi now heads Arafat's Fatah movement.

   

"Arafat has done his duty as a defender of the Palestinian cause, with courage and honesty"

Muhammad Sayid al-Tantawi,
Grand Shaikh,
Al-Azhar Mosque, Egypt

Egypt
laid on the funeral because the Israeli occupation would make it difficult for many of the foreign leaders to reach a ceremony in the Palestinian territories.

   

At least 16 heads of state and government, mostly from Arab and Muslim countries sympathetic to the Palestinians, took part in the military ceremony.

   

Most European governments, which have resisted US and Israeli attempts to isolate the Palestinian leader, sent foreign ministers. The United States sent a senior State Department official.

   

World leaders at the Cairo ceremonies included South African President Thabo Mbeki, King Abd Allah of Jordan, Lebanese President Emile Lahud and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

   

Among others, the presidents of Algeria, Bangladesh, Yemen and Indonesia were present, as were the prime ministers of Turkey, Pakistan and Sweden. Many countries sent foreign ministers including France, Germany, Britain, India, Spain and Iran.