Israeli former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the most revered and controversial politicians in his country's history, died Saturday after eight years in a coma. He was 85.

Sharon, who never recovered from a massive stroke suffered on Jan. 4, 2006, began to further deteriorate two and a half months ago and in recent days had been suffering from renal failure that affected several vital organs, according to the long-term care facility near Tel Aviv where had been treated since May 2006.

"He went when he decided to go," Sharon's son, Gilad Sharon, said before thanking everyone in Israel and around the world who had expressed interest in his condition.

Raanan Gissin, a senior advisor to Sharon during his tenure as prime minister, which lasted from March 2001 until April 2006, told Efe that the statesman's legacy and influence spanned the military, political and economic spheres.

Sharon had long championed the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but he reversed course with his decision as prime minister to withdraw all Israeli settlers and armed forces from Gaza.

The move - carried out in August 2005 - was backed by nearly all Palestinians and a majority of Israelis, but was opposed by some members of Sharon's newly formed Kadima party and the right-wing Likud.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current prime minister and the leader of Likud, expressed "deep sorrow" at Sharon's passing and said "his memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation."

President Shimon Peres, for his part, paid tribute to Sharon, saying "he was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision."

But the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, said in the wake of Sharon's death that he was a "criminal" whose "hands were covered in Palestinian blood."

Sharon is considered indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut at the hands of a Lebanese Christian militia.

Sharon, a former army general who was defense minister at the time of the massacre and had orchestrated Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon earlier that year, is accused by Hamas and other Palestinians of not impeding the entry of Lebanese Phalangist Christians into the camps. EFE