France has staged an official farewell ceremony for Yasser Arafat. The coffin of the 75-year-old has been given a full military send-off near Paris, before being loaded on board a French transport plane bound for Cairo. This ahead of a funeral service in the Egyptian capital on Friday morning. The French Government was represented by the Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and his foreign minister. Arafat’s wife Suha was also there, as well as the Palestinian envoy to Paris.
French and Palestinian national hymns were among the pieces played by the military band. The coffin was covered with the Palestinian flag and was carried by members of a guard of honour. Earlier a helicopter had been used to take the coffin from the hospital where Arafat died to the military base. Crowds of people had gathered outside both locations carrying floral tributes and portraits of Arafat, and waving the Palestinian flag. After the coffin was loaded onto the place, Arafat’s wife and the Palestinian envoy to France also boarded the flight for Cairo. The aircraft is due to arrive at about 9pm Thursday (GMT). Arab and Muslim leaders, as well as many foreign ministers, will attend the funeral procession in Cairo. The body will then be flown to Ramallah for burial at the compound in which Arafat had been confined for the past two and a half years. The final farewell from France will be very symbolic for the Palestinian officials who had requested Paris’ help in treating their leader. They probably had no idea that instead of taking him home in better health, they would be watching a plane take off with his coffin on board.