BEN-GURION AIRPORT, Israel – An Israeli police officer fatally shot himself in the head at an airport farewell ceremony Tuesday for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, prompting bodyguards to whisk the visiting leader and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to safety, officials said.
A military band was playing at the time of the shooting, and the dignitaries apparently didn't hear anything. Dark-suited security men quickly ushered Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, up the stairs of his plane at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.
Security guards, their guns drawn, also rushed Olmert and Israeli President Shimon Peres toward their cars. The incident was over within minutes, and Olmert then boarded the plane to tell Sarkozy what happened, witnesses said.
The policeman, who was on a roof about 100 yards from Sarkozy's plane, fell to the ground after shooting himself, and his sheet-covered body lay on the tarmac afterward.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld denied reports that there had been an assassination attempt on Sarkozy, and other police officials said the leaders were never in danger.
"We are currently investigating the circumstances to see whether it was suicide or if he accidentally discharged his weapon," said area police commander Nissim Mor. "His mission was to secure an area to prevent people from reaching the ceremony."
A French presidential spokesman who was on another scheduled flight out of Tel Aviv said he knew nothing about the incident.
Sarkozy was ending a three-day visit. Earlier Tuesday, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Sarkozy said Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank would not guarantee its security forever, renewing his call for Israelis and Palestinians to make peace and share the holy city of Jerusalem.
Sarkozy spoke at a news conference alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, following his only meeting with Palestinian leaders during his visit, which was aimed primarily at cementing the improved relations between France and Israel after years of frosty ties.
Nevertheless, the French president was unusually frank in his comments critical of Israeli policies.
On Monday, he told the Israeli parliament that there could be no Mideast peace unless Israel halted its West Bank settlement construction and divided Jerusalem. On Tuesday, he focused on the separation barrier that Israel says it has built to keep suicide bombers out. Palestinians denounce the barrier as a land grab.
"You can't protect yourself with a wall, but with politics," Sarkozy said. "What will give Israel security ... is making a democratic Palestinian state."
Israeli government spokesman David Baker said Sarkozy was "a great friend of Israel," adding that "great friends don't always see eye to eye on every issue."
Sarkozy also repeated his call to share Jerusalem, the eastern part of which Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.
Sarkozy, whose maternal grandfather was a Greek Jew, devoted most of his trip to meetings with Israeli leaders. He also met the parents of an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants in Gaza. The young man, Gilad Schalit, also holds French citizenship.
Throughout the visit, he called himself a "friend of Israel" and showered praise on the Jewish state.
"On behalf of France, we would like to declare our true love to Israel — we love you!" Sarkozy said at a meeting with businessmen.