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Chaotic crowds crash Arafat burial

Thousands swarm helicopter

Mourners pray beside Arafat's flag-covered grave after his burial Friday.
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After the opening prayer, funeral services begin for Yasser Arafat.

Arafat's coffin was taken first by hearse, then by horse-drawn carriage.

A look back at the life and political career of Yasser Arafat.

How the world viewed Yasser Arafat.
Will Yasser Arafat's death mark a turning point in the Middle East peace process?
Yasser Arafat

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Amid chaotic and highly emotional mourners, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was buried Friday at the Ramallah compound where Israel confined him for years.

Arafat died Thursday in a French military hospital, days after suffering a brain hemorrhage and coma. He was admitted to the hospital October 29 with a blood ailment and digestive problems that were never clearly described.

The 75-year-old Arafat had spent his life seeking a homeland for his people but was seen by Israelis as a terrorist and roadblock to peace.

Arafat's burial -- much like his life -- was marked by the unexpected, as tens of thousands of wailing and cheering Palestinians entered the compound walls and swarmed a helicopter bearing his casket.

Weapons were fired into the air and Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, standing at the door of the helicopter, implored the crowds to move back.

"I was under shock," Erakat later told CNN, adding that he had only opened the door slightly. "You have to think, 'take it down, then they'll storm the plane, somebody may shoot.' "

Erakat said he begged the mourners to give Arafat "the honor he deserves."

"It was a chaotic situation," he said, but "at the same time it reflected the attachment of his people towards him."

The casket, draped in a Palestinian flag, was ultimately removed from the helicopter and carried through the crowd.

Mourners desperately clambered for a chance to touch Arafat's casket, as security personnel fought to carry it to his grave site.

For a time, the flag was placed on a vehicle, with more than a dozen people standing on it, warning others to get back.

Briefly, the vehicle could not pass through the crowd to approach the tomb. Security threatened to take the casket back to the helicopter. At that point, the crowd backed off slightly.

Then the crowd pressed on. Soon the flag was gone, the casket's wooden exterior exposed. Security officials surrounded the casket and others linked arms, working to create a channel to get the coffin through to the tomb.

Finally, the casket arrived at the concrete and marble tomb, into which officials poured about four buckets of soil brought from Jerusalem -- where Arafat had said he wished to be laid to rest.

Amid prayers, the casket was lowered into the tomb. After the burial, armed mourners fired wildly into the air, and the crowd broke out with loud cheering and shouting.

"Our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for you, Yasser Arafat," they chanted.

Some sobbed. Two men sat on the ground hugging, mourning their lost leader.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said Arafat would have loved the massive outpouring of emotion and support.

Ambulances arrived to treat the injured, who numbered as many as 120, the Palestine Red Crescent said. Most were suffering from suffocation and fainting, and four of the injured had been wounded by bullets or shrapnel, the group said.

Palestinian officials said they do not think of the burial as Arafat's final resting place, because they hope Arafat will one day be buried in Jerusalem.

Israel has ruled out a Jerusalem burial, saying Arafat was a terrorist who orchestrated attacks against many civilians.

Friday's burial in Ramallah followed a military funeral held in Cairo, the city of Arafat's birth, attended by world leaders and Palestinian representatives. (Full story)

Palestinian officials said Arafat will be remembered as a strong leader who symbolized the Palestinian cause of nationhood and self-determination.

Although his death leaves no clear successor in the often fractious world of Palestinian politics, Palestinian parliament speaker Rawhi Fattuh has been sworn in as interim president of the Palestinian Authority.

Elections to find a permanent replacement for Arafat are set to take place within 60 days.

In Washington, Europe and the Middle East, Friday was widely viewed as a potential turning point in the effort to get peace efforts between Palestinians and Israel moving again.

During a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush said "the months ahead offer a new opportunity to make progress toward a lasting peace."

Choosing a new president will be "the first step in creating lasting, democratic political institutions through which a free Palestinian people will elect local and national leaders," Bush said. (Full story)

Meanwhile, officials in the Palestinian Authority are searching for millions of dollars believed hidden away by the Palestinian leader. Last week, as Arafat lay in his death bed, Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad held a teleconference with donors spelling out massive budget problems. He said the authority had only $19 million to meet payroll expenses of $225 million by the end of this year alone.

During Arafat's illness, Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei was in charge of the Palestinian Authority, while Mahmoud Abbas led the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee.

On Thursday, the PLO's executive committee unanimously approved Abbas, a former Palestinian prime minister, to replace Arafat as PLO chairman. (Full story)

Arafat is survived by his widow, whom he married in 1991, and their daughter, Zahwa, who was born in 1995.

CNN Producer Alfredo De Lara contributed to this report.

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