RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) - Yasser Arafat, the guerrilla leader turned Nobel Peace Prize winner who forced his people's plight into the world spotlight, died Thursday at age 75 - still reviled by many as a terrorist.
Arafat died at 3:30 a.m. in a French military hospital. His last days were as murky and dramatic as his life. Arafat was flown to France on Oct. 29 after nearly three years of being penned in his West Bank headquarters by Israeli tanks.
He initially improved but then sharply deteriorated as rumors swirled about his illness. Neither doctors nor Palestinian leaders would say what killed Arafat.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of the Gaza Strip in a spontaneous show of grief. Dozens of gunmen fired into the air, and marchers waved Palestinian flags.
Mosques blared Quranic verses and children burned tires on the main streets, covering the skies in black smoke. People pasted posters of Arafat on building walls.
Palestinian Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh was to be sworn in as Palestinian Authority president until elections are held in 60 days, according to Palestinian law. Officials said they want to ensure a smooth transition, despite uncertainty and a behind-the-scenes power struggle to assume the Arafat mantle.
Palestinian flags at Arafat's battered Ramallah compound were lowered to half staff. Television broadcast excerpts from the Quran with a picture of Arafat in the background.
"He closed his eyes and his big heart stopped. He left for God but he is still among this great people," said senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim, who broke into tears as he announced Arafat's death.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was saddened by Arafat's passing.
"President Arafat was one of those few leaders who could be instantly recognized by people in any walk of life all around the world. For nearly four decades, he expressed and symbolized in his person the national aspirations of the Palestinian people."
Revered by his own people, Arafat was reviled by others. He was accused of secretly fomenting attacks on Israelis while proclaiming brotherhood and claiming to have put terrorism aside. Many Israelis felt the paunchy 5-foot, 2-inch Palestinian's real goal remained the destruction of the Jewish state.
Arafat became one of the world's most familiar faces after addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1974, when he entered the chamber wearing a holster and carrying a sprig. "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun," he said. "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."
Two decades later, he shook hand at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on a peace deal that formally recognized Israel's right to exist while granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The pact led to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.