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Arafat's remains to be exhumed for radiation checks

THE remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is due to be exhumed on Tuesday, to enable foreign experts to take samples as part of a probe into his death.

A man cleans a portrait of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
A man cleans a portrait of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

Arafat died in November 2004, a month after falling ill, and Palestinian officials have insisted he was poisoned by Israel. Israel has vehemently denied killing him.

The detection of traces of a lethal radioactive substance in biological stains on Arafat's clothing earlier this year sparked a new investigation.

Former Palestinian intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi, who heads the committee investigating Arafat's death, said yesterday that Swiss, French and Russian experts would take samples from Arafat's remains on Tuesday. He said Arafat would be reburied the same day with military honours but the ceremony would be closed to the public.

Arafat, who led the Palestine Liberation Organisation for 35 years and became the first president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, fell violently ill at his compound in October 2004.

Two weeks later he was flown to a French military hospital in Paris, where he died on 11 November 2004, aged 75.

His widow, Suha, objected to a post-mortem examination at the time, but later appealed to the Palestinian Authority to permit the exhumation "to reveal the truth".

In 2005, the New York Times obtained a copy of Arafat's medical records, which it said showed he died of a massive haemorrhagic stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an unknown infection.

Independent experts who reviewed the records told the paper it was highly unlikely that he had died of Aids or had been poisoned.

A murder inquiry was launched by French prosecutors in August after an investigation by al Jazeera TV, working with scientists at the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, found "significant" traces of polonium-210 present in samples taken from Arafat's personal effects, including his trademark keffiyeh headdress.

The clothes were provided by Arafat's widow, Soha, who also asked the French government to investigate, while the Palestinian Authority called in Russian experts.

In some cases, the elevated levels were 10 times higher than those on control subjects, and most of the polonium could not have come from natural sources, the scientists said.

Earlier this month, workers began prying open the concrete-encased tomb in Arafat's former government headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Since mid-November the gravesite has been surrounded with a blue tarpaulin and roads leading to the Arafat mausoleum were closed. Arafat is still widely revered in the Palestinian territories, and Palestinian officials said they did not want the process to be observed.

The mystery surrounding Arafat's death has led to persistent conspiracy theories. Many in the Arab world believe the leader, who was the face of the Palestinian independence struggle for four decades, was killed by Israel.

There is no guarantee the exhumation will shed further light. Polonium-210 is known to rapidly decompose, and experts are divided over whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing.

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