Yasser Arafat. Photo by Reuters
The body of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has
been exhumed by a team of international experts trying to
discover whether he was poisoned.
French magistrates opened a murder inquiry in August into
Arafat's death in Paris after a Swiss institute said it had
discovered high levels of radioactive polonium on his
clothing, which was supplied by his widow, Suha.
Arafat, who led the Palestinians' bid for a state through
years of war and peacemaking, died in Paris aged 75 in 2004
after a short, mysterious illness.
No autopsy was carried out at the time, at the request of
Suha, and French doctors who treated him said they were
unable to determine the cause of death.
But allegations of foul play immediately surfaced, with many
locals pointing the finger at Israel, which confined Arafat
to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah for the final two
and a half years of his life after a Palestinian uprising
Israel has denied any wrongdoing, inviting the Palestinian
leadership to release all his medical records, which were
never made public following his death.
The official radio station Voice of Palestine reported that
Arafat had been disinterred after work began at dawn.
Experts from Switzerland, France, Russia and the Palestinian
territories took part in the exhumation, which was carried
out far from the public gaze, behind blue sheeting carefully
erected around his limestone mausoleum in Ramallah.
Workers strung up a huge Palestinian flag to cover the top of
the city centre landmark, which lies inside the presidential
compound of Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas.
"Samples will be taken according to a very strict protocol
and these samples will be analysed," said Darcy Christen,
spokesman for the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland
that carried out the original tests on Arafat's clothes.
"In order to do these analyses, to check, cross check and
double cross check, it will take several months and I don't
think we'll have anything tangible available before March or
April next year," he added.
Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have
caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko
in London in 2006. But some experts have questioned whether
Arafat could have died in this way, pointing to a brief
recovery during his illness that they said was not consistent
with radioactive poisoning. They also noted he did not lose
all his hair.
Eight years is considered the limit to detect any traces of
the fast-decaying polonium and the Lausanne hospital
questioned in August if it would be worth seeking any samples
if access to Arafat's body was delayed to "October or
Not all of Arafat's family has agreed to the exhumation and
Suha herself has not come to Ramallah for the operation.
Arafat's remains will be reburied with full military honours
later on Tuesday after the forensic work is complete.
Working in parallel with the forensic team, French
magistrates are also in Ramallah this week questioning
members of Arafat's inner circle to see if they can shed
light on his death.
One source told Reuters the French had a list of 60
questions, with at least one man facing five hours of
While many Palestinians believe that Israel was behind the
death, they acknowledge that a Palestinian would almost
certainly have had to administer the poison, wittingly or