Israel's Agricultural Minister Ariel Sharon (3rd R) shakes hands with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in the northern city of Haifa in this handout file picture taken September 4, 1979 and and obtained by Reuters from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). Reuters/Yaacov Saar
TEL AVIV - Former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon died at a hospital near Tel Aviv on Saturday, aged 85, after eight years in a coma, officials and his family said.
"The Sheba medical centre in Tel HaShomer announces with sorrow the passing of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that was determined approximately an hour ago," Professor Shlomo Noy told a news conference.
Sharon has been in a coma since January 4, 2006 after suffering a massive stroke. His condition took a sudden turn for the worse on January 1 when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.
Despite multiple efforts to halt stabilise him, he passed away on Saturday afternoon at around 1200 GMT, the hospital said.
"He's gone; he went when he decided to go," his son Gilad told reporters at the hospital, in remarks carried by Channel 2 television.
Sharon was one of Israel's most skilled but controversial political and military leaders, who was hailed by many Israelis as a state whose ruthless methods earned him the moniker "The Bulldozer".
As news of his death emerged, tributes poured in from senior Israeli officials, while Palestinians called him a criminal
"My dear friend, Arik (Ariel) Sharon, lost his final battle today," said a statement from President Shimon Peres.
"Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision," he said.
"He will be greatly missed."
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also expressed "great sadness" over his death.
"Arik was a man I loved. They say great soldiers don't die, they fade away. Arik faded eight years ago, and now finally left us," she said, describing him as a "brave fighter, commander, leader, (a) farmer whose legs were firmly planted in Israel's soil."
A veteran soldier, Sharon fought in all of Israel's major wars before embarking on a turbulent political career in 1973 which ended dramatically in January 2006 when he suffered a massive stroke from which he never recovered.
One of the last of Israel's founders
Long considered a pariah for his personal but "indirect" responsibility for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Sharon was elected premier in 2001.
The Palestinians were quick to welcome news of his death, with a senior official labelling him as a criminal and expressing regret he was never taken before the International Criminal Court.
"Sharon was a criminal, responsible for the assassination of (Palestinian president Yasser) Arafat, and we would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal," said Jibril Rajub, a senior official of the Fatah party.
The Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said Sharon's death was a "historic moment," marking the "disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood."
One of the last members of the generation which founded the Jewish state 1948, he leaves a complex legacy which saw him push through a policy of separation from the Palestinians, orchestrate Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and begin building the sprawling West Bank barrier in 2002.
Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to parents from Belarus, Sharon was just 17 when he joined the Haganah, the pre-state militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.
Known throughout his military career for his boldness, Sharon also had a stubborn sense of independence.
Ever the maverick, Sharon later broke with his life-long rightwing convictions to push through an unprecedentedly bold plan to withdraw Israeli troops and 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip.
But just months later, at the height of his political career, he collapsed into a coma from which he would never recover.
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