Ariel Sharon, one of the most controversial figures in Israeli politics, has died at the age of 85.

The former prime minister had been in a coma for eight years having suffered a stroke in January 2006.

His son Gilad officially 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, when he suffered serious kidney problems following surgery.

Mr Sharon played a key role in Israeli history, as an army general and later as a politician.

He left major historical footprints on the Middle East through military invasion, Jewish settlement-building on occupied land the Palestinians seek for a state but also the shock, unilateral decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

"Arik was a valorous soldier and a bold statesman who contributed much to the security and building up of the State ofIsrael," said President Shimon Peres, a former political ally of Mr Sharon.

Mr Peres is now, with the ex-premier's death, the last of the Jewish state's founders still in public life.            

Officials said Mr Sharon, who took power in 2001 soon after the start of a second Palestinian uprising that raged until 2005, would be buried in a state funeral to which foreign dignitaries would be invited.

Israeli army radio said tonight Mr Sharon will be buried on Monday afternoon at his southern ranch after a memorial service earlier in the day in parliament.

According to the report, Mr Sharon's coffin will be placed at parliament in Jerusalem tomorrow to enable the public to pay their last respects.