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Palestinians ready to exhume Arafat body after scientists find polonium on his toothbrush, clothes

Odd Andersen / AFP - Getty Images, file

Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says goodbye to well-wishers as he leaves Ramallah on October 29, 2004. He was flown to Paris to seek medical treatment, but died less than two weeks later.

Updated at 9:35 a.m. ET: Yasser Arafat's body may be exhumed to allow for more testing of the causes of his death, the Palestinian president said Wednesday, after a Swiss lab said it found elevated levels of a radioactive isotope in belongings the Palestinian leader is said to have used in his final days. 

Arafat's widow, Suha, called for an autopsy in the wake of the lab's findings, first reported by the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera. In an interview with the station, she did not explain why she waited nearly eight years to have the belongings, including a toothbrush and a fur hat, tested. At the time of his death, she refused to agree to an autopsy.

Nov. 12, 2004: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was buried in ceremonies that were at once stately, emotional and chaotic, reports NBC's Brian Williams.

The Palestinian leader died at a military hospital outside Paris in November 2004 of what French doctors called a massive brain hemorrhage — weeks after he fell violently ill at his West Bank compound. 

Darcy Christen, spokesman for the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, told Reuters on Tuesday it had found "surprisingly" high levels of polonium-210 in Arafat's belongings.

But he stressed that clinical symptoms described in Arafat's medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210 and that conclusions could not be drawn as to whether the Palestinian leader was poisoned or not.

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera said the institute had tested Arafat's personal effects, given them by his widow.

'Unexplained'
Its documentary said they showed that his clothes, toothbrush and kaffiyeh headscarf contained abnormal levels of polonium, a rare, highly radioactive element.

"I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr. Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids," Francois Bochud, director of the institute, said in the documentary.

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Bochud said the only way to confirm the findings would be to exhume Arafat's body to test it for polonium-210.

"But we have to do it quite fast because polonium is decaying, so if we wait too long, for sure, any possible proof will disappear," he told Al Jazeera.

Polonium was found to have caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, and he was assumed to have been deliberately poisoned.

Dateline NBC from 2007: Litvinenko assassins likely to escape justice

Arafat's widow Suha said she would ask for Arafat's body - buried in the West Bank town of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian self-rule authority - to be exhumed.

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Speaking at the end of the documentary, aired on Al Jazeera's English and Arabic channels, she said: "We have to go further and exhume Yasser Arafat's body to reveal the truth to all the Muslim and Arab world."

Arafat led the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's fight against Israel from the 1960s but signed a peace agreement with the Jewish state in 1993 establishing Palestinian self-rule areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Nov. 14, 2004: As Palestinians hunt for a new leader, there is a global search to find billions of dollars that may have been stashed by the late Yasser Arafat. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

His mysterious death came four years into a Palestinian uprising, after years of talks with Israel failed to lead to a Palestinian state. French doctors who treated Arafat in his final days could not establish the cause of death.

French officials refused to give details of his condition, citing privacy laws, fuelling a host of rumors and theories over the nature of his illness.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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