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Statesmen, leaders react to the passing of Ariel Sharon at age 85

Kevin Frayer / Pool via EPA

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon takes part in the lighting of a Hanukkah candle at his office in Jerusalem in 2005.

Leaders across the world paid tribute to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday at the age of 85.

Figureheads in the ex-general's home country praised the hard-liner as a tough, thick-skinned leader.

The current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “Ariel Sharon had a central role in the struggle for the security of the state of Israel throughout the years. He was first and foremost a brave warrior and one of the greatest commanders of the Israeli Army. His memory will be burnt in our nation's heart forever.”

Israel president Shimon Peres struck a similar chord, addressing the late Sharon by a term of endearment: "My dear friend, Arik Sharon, lost his final battle today. Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. He knew no fear ... I shall miss him dearly and remember him lovingly."

President Barack Obama, who has spoken often of the "sacrosanct" bond between the U.S. and Israel, offered up his condolences.

“On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the people of Israel on the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel,” Obama said. “We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel."

Secretary of State John Kerry offered a personal remembrance: "I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became Prime Minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process."

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the friendship between the U.S. and Israel was “based on a common love of freedom, a relationship strengthened by farsighted leaders like Ariel Sharon.”

Boehner added: “I join the people of the Jewish state of Israel in mourning the loss of Ariel Sharon, one of the greatest warrior-statesmen in modern history."

Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, said Israel "has lost one of its greatest heroes and defenders."

He added: "With the passing of Prime Minister Sharon, all of us should re-commit ourselves to the enduring security of Israel and to realizing the vision that animated the final years of this great man's life — the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security."

Jim Hollander / EPA

Israelis view the grave of Lily Sharon, the wife of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, outside Sderot, southern Israel, about an hour after Sharon died Saturday in a Tel Aviv hospital It is believed that Sharon will be buried next to his wife.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called Sharon "one of the most significant figures in Israeli history," adding, "as Prime Minister he took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace, before he was so tragically incapacitated. Israel has today lost an important leader."

Sharon died after eight years in a coma, induced by a stroke at the height of his political power.

“Prime Minister Sharon will be remembered for his political courage and determination to carry through with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip. His successor faces the difficult challenge of realizing the aspirations of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon through his spokesperson.

While many leaders expressed their respect for Sharon’s prowess and diligence in the Israeli battlefield and later as a determined patriotic leader, he remained a controversial figure.

Sharon’s “passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map ... He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive," said Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief during Sharon's time as prime minister.

And yet many in Israel have long defended Sharon's leadership.

"Arik was not a warmonger. When it was necessary to fight, he stood at the forefront of the divisions in the most sensitive and painful places," said Sharon's predecessor Ehud Olmert, who took office after Sharon's stroke.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel "is mourning with the Israeli people" for Sharon, said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert. "With his courageous decision to withdraw the Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, he took a historic step on the path to a deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution." 

Vice President Joe Biden said he looked forward to leading the U.S. delegation to Sharon's memorial service "to pay respects to the man and to pay tribute to the unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel."

At Sharon's funeral on Monday, Britain will be represented by former prime minister, Tony Blair, and Russia will be represented by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Sharon’s coffin will be brought to Jerusalem on Saturday night and then transferred to the parliament building on Sunday where Knesset — Israeli Parliament — members and the public will have a chance to pay their respects. 

On Monday he will be buried next to his wife after a private ceremony at their farm, overlooking the plots. 

When Sharon's son, Gilad Sharon, announced the passing of his father, he said, "He has gone. He went when he decided to go."

The Associated Press Contributed to this report.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dead at 85