Jerusalem: Former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon died in hospital near Tel Aviv Saturday, aged 85, after eight years in a coma, drawing tributes from Israeli leaders but contempt from Palestinians.
"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," senior doctor Professor Shlomo Noy told a news conference at 1300 GMT.
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 New Year's Day when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.
"He's gone; he went when he decided to go," his son Gilad told reporters at the hospital, in remarks on 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 statesman whose ruthless methods earned him the moniker "The Bulldozer."
As news of his death emerged, tributes poured in from senior Israeli officials, but the Palestinians were quick to denounce him as a "criminal" who had escaped international justice.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would "forever" cherish Sharon's memory.
"The State of Israel bows its head over the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon," he said in a statement, expressing "deep sorrow" over the news.
"His memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation."
President Shimon Peres also expressed his grief.
"My dear friend, Arik (Ariel) Sharon, lost his final battle today," he said in a statement.
"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.
He was a "brave fighter, a commander, a leader (and) 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 that ended dramatically when he suffered the stroke from which he never recovered.