27 Nov 2012

Arafat's body exhumed in search for poison

9:03 pm on 27 November 2012

The body of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been exhumed by a team of international experts trying to discover if he was poisoned as many Palestinians believe.

Mr Arafat, who led the Palestinians' bid for a state through years of war and peacemaking, died in Paris in 2004 after a short, mysterious illness.

The exhumation from his tomb in Ramalla in the West Bank on Tuesday follows a television documentary that said traces of a radioactive element were on his clothing.

French magistrates began a murder inquiry in August this year into the 75-year-old's death after a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of polonium on the clothing, supplied by his widow Suha.

No post-mortem 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, Reuters reports.

However, allegations of foul play immediately surfaced, with many locals pointing the finger at Israel, which confined Mr Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah for the final two-and-a-half years of his life after a Palestinian uprising erupted.

Israel has denied any wrongdoing, inviting the Palestinian leadership to release all his medical records, which were never made public following his death.

Experts from Switzerland, France, Russia and the Palestinian territories took part in the exhumation carried out far from the public gaze behind blue sheeting erected around his limestone mausoleum in Ramallah.

Darcy Christen, a spokesperson for the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland that carried out the original tests on Mr Arafat's clothes, said samples would be taken according to strict protocol before being analysed and exhaustively checked. He believed the process could take about five months.

Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

However, some experts have questioned whether Mr 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 Mr Arafat's body was delayed to "October or November."

Sabri Sidam, a senior Palestinian Authority spokesperson, says the process is necessary to get to the truth.