Middle East

Israel holds burial service for Ariel Sharon

Israel is holding the burial service of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his family ranch in the Negev desert.

Earlier, speakers at the state memorial described him as an "indomitable" man devoted to the security of his people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was "one of the greatest military commanders the Jewish people have had".

Mr Sharon, regarded by many Israelis as a great statesmen but widely loathed in the Arab world, died on Saturday aged 85 after eight years in a coma.

Thousands of mourners paid their final respects on Sunday, when Mr Sharon's coffin lay in state outside parliament - the Knesset - in Jerusalem.

'Giant of this land'

Amid final prayers, Mr Sharon's coffin was placed in a plot at the Sycamore ranch he owned near Sderot, close to Gaza.

He lies beside his wife Lili, who died in 2000.

Security was tight as a group of eight serving generals carried the coffin on the final stage of the journey.

Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Benny Gantz said in a speech: "Generations of soldiers came to salute you for the last time today... I came to salute you too."

Earlier, some 20 foreign delegates and hundreds of Israeli dignitaries attended the state memorial service.

They included US Vice-President Joe Biden, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Middle East international envoy Tony Blair, Czech PM Jiri Rusnok and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption After the memorial, a military service was held at Latrun
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Sharon was a soldier for many years, playing a major role in 1973 war, before he entered politics

Delivering the first speech at the memorial, President Shimon Peres said Mr Sharon was a "living military legend" who also always dreamed of peace for Israel.

He said Mr Sharon's shoulders had "borne the weight of the security of our people".

Mr Netanyahu said Mr Sharon's "unique contribution to the security of the state is engraved in our historical writings", adding: "Your memory will be part of this nation forever."

Mr Biden described Mr Sharon as an "indomitable bulldozer... The security of his people was his unwavering mission".

Describing Mr Sharon as "bold, unorthodox and unyielding", but also "warm-hearted, humorous, charming and passionate", Mr Blair called the former PM "a giant of this land" who would "take his place in the history of Israel with pride".

Mr Sharon's body was then taken in a funeral cortege for a brief military ceremony at Latrun, west of Jerusalem, where he was severely wounded in the 1948 war of independence.

An Israeli security source said the Hamas government in Gaza had been warned to prevent any rocket attacks on the burial service.

Because of its proximity to Gaza, three security rings were being placed around the burial site.

The Israeli military said four rockets were launched from Gaza on Monday. The first two rockets did not reach Israel, the second two landed on open ground.

Gaza withdrawal

No-one from the Arab world, Africa or Latin America was attending Monday's ceremonies.

Mr Sharon's active role in four wars, from Israel's independence in 1948 until 1973, and later in government as the man who ordered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, meant he was widely hated across the Arab world.

Palestinians saw him as a war criminal, because of the 1982 massacre by Christian Phalangist militia at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. An Israeli inquiry found Mr Sharon responsible for failing to prevent the killings.

But months before the stroke that left him in a coma in January 2006, he guided Israelis through a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, with the declared aim of easing tensions with the Palestinians.