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Israelis pay their respects to Sharon

THOUSANDS of Israelis waited to bid farewell to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, the maverick warrior-statesman whose body lies in state outside parliament in Jerusalem.

Mr Sharon died aged 85 on Saturday after eight years in a coma caused by a stroke suffered at the peak of his political power, which he used to reshape the Middle East. He will be buried today in a military funeral on his farm in southern Israel.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni wrote in a tribute: "They say old soldiers do not die, they fade away. Arik Sharon faded away eight years ago, and now we truly say goodbye to him."

Mr Sharon was one of Israel's finest military strategists and most powerful political figures, spearheading military invasion, Jewish settlement-building on Palestinian land, and making the shock decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Sharon suffered a stroke shortly after he quit the right-wing Likud party and founded a centrist faction to advance peace with the Palestinians, whose 2000-2005 Intifada uprising he had battled as Prime Minister.

In parliament's main plaza yesterday, Israelis filed past Mr Sharon's coffin, which was draped in the blue-and-white national flag.

The mood was sombre but not deeply mournful, eight years after Mr Sharon fell from public view.

A few in the crowd wept, but many others paused to snap photographs of the coffin with their cell phones.

Mr Sharon was widely hated by Arabs over the 1982 massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camp in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel, but the US and other foreign powers mourned him as a peacemaker.

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