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Arafat's body exhumed; experts to investigate if he was poisoned

Labs in France, Russia and Switzerland will conduct independent tests of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's bone samples, searching for evidence that he could have been poisoned. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET: The remains of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were exhumed from his grave on Tuesday -- eight years after his death at age 75 — as part of an investigation into allegations that he was poisoned, according to official Palestinian radio. 


Arafat's body was uncovered in its grave and samples were removed without having to lift the corpse from the ground. As a result, a planned reburial ceremony with full military honors was called off.

The tomb was resealed in hours and wreaths were placed by Palestinian leaders including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.


 

"The state of the body was exactly what you would expect to find for someone who has been buried for eight years. There was nothing out of the ordinary," Health Minister Hani Abdeen told a news conference.

A Palestinian medical team took samples and gave them to Swiss, French and Russian experts who flew in for the exhumation and who will examine them in their home countries, the officials said. Samples were taken earlier from Arafat's bedroom, office and personal belongings, they said.

Arafat case: 'Proof' still might elude Palestinians

French judges opened a murder inquiry into Arafat's death in August after a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of radioactive polonium on his clothing.

AP

See key moments and memorable scenes from Yasser Arafat's life.

Jordanian doctor Abdullah al Bashir, head of the Palestinian medical committee, said about 20 samples were taken and analysis would take at least three months.

"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," said Darcy Christen, spokesman for Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland that carried out tests on Arafat's clothes.

Rumors of foul play have long surrounded the sudden demise of Arafat, a champion of Palestinian statehood from the time he was 19, and eventually, the democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat was revered by many Palestinians and Arabs as a freedom fighter and reviled by many Israelis and its allies as a terrorist for his relentless fight for Palestinian self-determination. But he also had enemies and rivals within the Arab and Palestinian political circles.

He died in November 2004 at a French military hospital, a month after suddenly falling ill. The rapid deterioration of his health and death baffled doctors who were trying to treat him in France, and an autopsy was never performed at the request of his widow, Suha.

'A painful necessity'
While the immediate cause of death was a stroke, the underlying source of an illness he suffered in his final weeks has never been clear, leading to persistent speculation in the Arab world that Israel poisoned him. Israel has denied such allegations.

Poisoning as a cause of death gained currency after a Swiss institute said it had found high levels of radioactive polonium on Arafat's clothing, which was supplied by Suha, prompting the French to open a formal murder inquiry.

Polonium was the substance that killed Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Litvenenko was a Russian ex-spy who later became a relentless critic of the Kremlin.

"It is a painful necessity" to exhume the body of Arafat, said Tawfiq al-Tirawi, who is in charge of the Palestinian committee overseeing the investigation, speaking to reporters in Ramallah on Saturday.

Tirawi said the Palestinians had "evidence which suggests Arafat was assassinated by Israelis," Reuters reported.

The exhumation might not resolve the mystery. Polonium-210 decomposes rapidly, and some experts say it is not clear whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing. 

NBC's Kari Huus, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Palestinians have begun to exhume the body of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in an attempt to determine whether he was assassinated by lethal doses of radioactive poison. NBC's John Ray reports.

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