Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Dead At 85

Sharon's son announced the death at the hospital where his father had been in a coma for eight years. REUTERS/Kevin Frayer/Pool/Files

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Ariel Sharon, the trailblazing former Israeli general and prime minister who was in a coma for eight years after he had a stroke at the height of his power, died on Saturday aged 85, his family and the government said.

Sharon's son Gilad announced the death at the hospital where his father had been treated. Doctors there had predicted his imminent death after his health declined sharply last week.

Ministers in Israel's right-wing government, and the political opposition, mourned a tough and wily leader who left big footprints on the region through military invasion, Jewish settlement building on captured land and a shock, unilateral decision to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.

"The nation of Israel has today lost a dear man, a great leader and a bold warrior," Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement.

There was no immediate comment on the death from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Sharon's Likud party successor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been holding U.S.-sponsored peace talks.

But in Gaza, the Hamas Islamists whose political fortunes rose with the Israeli withdrawal savored Sharon's demise.

"We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zurhi, whose movement preaches the destruction of the Jewish state.

"Our people today feel extreme happiness at the death and departure of this criminal whose hands were smeared with the blood of our people and the blood of our leaders here and in exile."

Sharon1 Ariel Sharon smiles during a question and answer session with Israeli news editors at the Journalist's Association in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2005. Kevin Frayer/AP

Sharon2 Ariel Sharon watches an aerial drop through his binoculars on June 8, 1967 in the Sinai Peninsula, then occupied by Israel. Government Press Office/Reuters

Sharon3 Ariel Sharon, right, in combat helmet and flak jacket rides in APC leading his troops to a hookup with Christian forces in East Beirut, Lebanon, June 15, 1982. Bettmann/CORBIS

Sharon4 Ariel Sharon laughs as his wife Lily stands at his side during an aerial display in an Israeli Air Force Base July 15, 1982. REUTERS/Baruch Rimon/Government Press Office/Handout

Sharon5 Ariel Sharon casts his vote during the internal Herut Party elections held in Tel Aviv, April 14, 1984. Anat Givon/AP

Sharon6 An Israeli soldier keeps his finger on the trigger of his assault rifle while Former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon (right) stands on the bridge overlooking the Awali River, Israeli's most northerly position in Sidon, Lebanon on March 7, 1984. Sharon a few minutes earlier escaped a roadside bomb attack near Sidon as he was making his way to the bridge. AP Photo/Max Nash

Sharon7 Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon in 1988 in Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel. Peter Turnley/CORBIS

Sharon8 Former Defence Minister Ariel Sharon is escorted by soldiers and police officers to a rally attended by about 1,000 militant Jews in Hebron Tuesday May 7, 1996. Greg Marinovich/AP

Sharon9 Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, right, stands near but does not look at, or shake hands with, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Wye Plantation, Maryland, in this Oct. 21, 1998 photo. Before becoming a candidate, Sharon proudly boasted he had never shaken hands with Arafat, and called the Palestinian leader a "murderer and a liar" in an interview with the New Yorker magazine. AP Photo/Israel Government Press Office

Sharon10 Opposition Likud party leader Ariel Sharon gestures toward a stretch of the Jordan Valley, which lies in the West Bank, during a campaign stop at the Israeli army Tuvlan outpost on Jan. 3, 2001. AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky

Sharon11 Ariel Sharon pauses during a news conference regarding education reform in May 2004. AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File