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French court opens murder inquiry into Arafat's death

Odd Andersen / AFP - Getty Images file

Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says goodbye to well-wishers as he boards a Jordanian army helicopter at dawn at the Muqatta, his West Bank offices in Ramallah, Oct. 29, 2004.

Following allegations by his widow that the late Palestinian leader might have been poisoned, a French court has opened an inquiry into the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Arafat died at age 75 in a Paris military hospital in November 2004, a month after being flown, seriously ill, from his battered headquarters in Ramallah, where he had been effectively confined by Israel for more than 2-1/2 years.

According to the BBC, medical records stated Arafat had a massive stroke resulting from a blood disorder caused by an unknown infection. Many Palestinians, however, still believe the leader was poisoned by Israel, the BBC said, adding that some also believe the late leader had AIDS.

Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, welcomed the inquiry. However, he said the Arab League would also call at the United Nations for an international investigation into the death of Arafat, who led Palestinians' campaign to create a state through years of war and peace.

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Allegations of foul play have long surrounded Arafat's demise after French doctors who treated him in his final days said they could not establish the cause of death.

Many Arabs suspect Israel of being behind his decline, and the case returned to the headlines last month when a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of the radioactive element polonium-210 on Arafat's clothing supplied by his widow, Suha.

That substance was found to have killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Suha asked a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre to open a murder investigation following the revelations publicized in a July documentary broadcast by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite TV channel.

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However, the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne said that symptoms described in Arafat's medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210 and conclusions could not be drawn as to whether he had been poisoned.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said he hoped the French inquiry would reveal more on the circumstances of Arafat's death.

"This does not pertain to us. The complaint lodged by Suha Arafat with the French police does not address Israel or anyone in particular," he said.

"If the French justice system has decided to open an investigation, we hope that it will shed light on this matter."

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Erekat said a Palestinian committee investigating the death would continue its work. "We welcome the (French) decision," he said.

"We believe our political and medical team is working in parallel (with the French inquiry). At the same time the Arab League has now formed a committee which will call for an international investigation through the U.N. Security Council."

According to the BBC, Erekat said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had officially requested President Francois Hollande's assistance in this inquiry.

"We hope there will be a serious investigation to reveal the whole truth, in addition to an international investigation to identify all the parties involved in Arafat's martyrdom," Erekat said, according to the BBC.

'Premeditated murder'
A lawyer for Suha Arafat told Europe 1 radio that the French court was correct in recognizing its jurisdiction to investigate the case, since Arafat died in France.

"The tests done in Switzerland showed that Mr. Arafat, in all likelihood, died through poisoning," said the lawyer, Marc Bonnant. "This hypothesis must be proved, and if that's the case, then it's premeditated murder."

Suha Arafat has said her suspicions were raised when the hospital where her husband was treated acknowledged that it had destroyed his blood and urine samples.

The Palestinian Authority plans to exhume Arafat's body from a limestone mausoleum in Ramallah for an autopsy, and Tunisia has called for a ministerial meeting of the Arab League to discuss his death.

Arafat became the first president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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