An official French jet flew the Palestinian leader’s coffin from outside Paris after the French government bestowed on him full honours and a formal funerary ceremony on Thursday afternoon.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, wept with her head bowed as eight French soldiers walked down the Villacoublay airfield tarmac bearing the coffin, draped in a Palestinian flag.
Suha and French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin led dignitaries in a short and solemn ceremony as the body was carried to the jet by a French honour guard while the Palestinian and French anthems were played.
A group of Republican Guards – soldiers who usually take part in ceremonies for visiting heads of state – drew their swords in a tribute after the coffin was placed in the plane in a traditional homage to the dead.
Raffarin, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and other senior French officials stood alongside Suha during the ceremony.
Crowds of people outside the hospital’s gates cheered “long live Palestine!” and threw flowers into the air as the aircraft took off and disappeared into the grey sky.
Most of Cairo’s main streets will
Arafat’s body arrived at Cairo International Airport shortly before 11pm (2100 GMT) and is to be kept overnight at the Al Gala hospital. It will be transferred by helicopter to the Al Gala mosque in Heliopolis (New Cairo) at 8am (0600 GMT) the following morning.
The funeral procession will begin from the mosque about three hours later.
At least 12 Arab presidents and kings are expected to attend the funeral ceremony. Most European and Asian countries are sending their prime and foreign ministers.
Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will represent the United States at Arafat’s funeral, an official below the many European foreign ministers, African presidents and Arab leaders attending, and a choice that drew criticism that Washington was missing a chance for a fresh start with the Palestinians.
Of the Arab countries, Bahrain, Qatar, Libya, Oman, and Syria have not announced whether they are sending delegations to Cairo.
Egyptian officials told Aljazeera.net that most dignitaries were expected to arrive on Friday morning.
Arafat’s coffin received military
Late on Thursday evening, Egypt announced three official days of mourning ending on Saturday. Flags were flown at half mast.
Most of Cairo’s main streets and highways will be closed as will all traffic to and from the airport to allow easy access for foreign dignitaries.
Arafat, who was 75, will be buried in the West Bank city of Ram Allah, denying him his life-long wish of being buried in the contested city of Jerusalem.
Call for autopsy
He suffered a brain haemorrhage on Tuesday. Palestinian officials said he had lain in a coma for about a week and that he had suffered liver and kidney failure.
French doctors have not said publicly what illness he was suffering from.
“All the medical investigation undertaken in France should also be disclosed”
Dr Ashraf al-Kurdy,
Arafat’s longtime physician, however, called for a full autopsy, saying the Palestinian people had a right to know how their leader died.
“We received no news from the French hospital. This is why we call for an autopsy to learn more about the causes of Arafat’s illness,” Dr Ashraf al-Kurdy told Aljazeera.
“The reasons for his illness must be disclosed by any means. The Palestinian people must demand an immediate and full investigation about the cause of his illness, the progress of his illness, his status in France and the cause of his death.
“All the medical investigation undertaken in France should also be disclosed,” he said.
Meanwhile, amid fears that Arafat’s death could trigger an outbreak of violence, the Israeli occupation army imposed a total security clampdown on the West Bank.
The security restrictions have raised questions on the number of Palestinians who would be allowed to enter Ram Allah in the West Bank from the Gaza Strip, reported Aljazeera correspondent Shereen Abu Aqla.
Israel has announced that the army would prevent private cars travelling from Jerusalem to Ram Allah and instead would allow only public buses, the correspondent said.
Security restrictions may curtail
The Israeli army also announced it would withdraw its forces from inside the Palestinian cities to prevent possible clashes. The forces would remain outside the cities.
Forces would be deployed within Jerusalem city and on the roads leading from Ram Allah to Jerusalem, the correspondent reported.
Two helicopters would arrive on Friday at 13.30 (Palestine local time) or 11.30 GMT, one to transfer Arafat’s body and another to transfer the official Palestinian and Egyptian delegations participating in the funeral ceremony at Cairo.
The burial sequence in Ram Allah is expected to start at 11.30 GMT when Palestinians and visiting dignitaries would be allowed to pay their respects to Arafat.
Funeral prayers will then be performed, and the burial is expected to start at 16.00 (local time) or 14.00 hrs GMT, the correspondent reported.
Cairo journalist Doha al-Zohairy contributed to this report