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Reopening the mystery of Yasser Arafat’s death

Teams of experts from France, Switzerland and Russia are set to extract samples from the exhumed remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Tuesday. But can they solve one of the Mideast’s greatest mysteries?

 
 Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile, survived an attempted poisoning by Israeli agents in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 1997.

More than eight years after Yasser Arafat’s body arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah to a clamorous home crowd of bereft mourners, the remains of the former Palestinian leader are being exhumed Tuesday in a bid to solve one of the Middle East’s greatest political mysteries.

Teams of international experts from France, Switzerland and Russia, who began arriving in Ramallah over the weekend, will take samples of Arafat’s bones for further tests, according to Palestinian officials.

Arafat – fondly called Abu Ammar by his supporters – died at the Percy military hospital in a suburb of Paris on November 11, 2004.

French hospital reports attributed his death to a massive brain haemorrhage, but gave no details on what caused a related blood condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation. Batteries of tests conducted during his 17-day stay at Percy hospital were unable to pinpoint the cause of the blood disorder.

The rapid deterioration of Arafat’s health following an Israeli military siege of his destroyed Ramallah headquarters – known as the Muqata – fuelled numerous conspiracy theories, including suspicions that Israel, or even rival Palestinian factions within his own party, had poisoned the 74-year-old Palestinian leader.

Most Palestinians however believe he was poisoned by Israel. Palestinians point out that in 1997, Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal was the target of an attempted poisoning by Israeli agents in the Jordanian capital of Amman. The plot failed after Meshaal’s bodyguards captured Israeli secret agents fleeing the scene, enabling then Jordanian monarch, King Hussein, to secure an antidote in exchange for the release of the captured Israeli agents.

Israel has repeatedly denied responsibility for Arafat’s death.

The decision of the Palestinian leader’s widow, Suha Arafat, to forego an autopsy immediately after his death, coupled with French privacy laws prevented further investigations, fuelling rumours of foul play.

A documentary and a duffle bag reopen a closed case

But that changed earlier this year, when an Al Jazeera investigative report, which aired in July, found evidence that Arafat’s death may have been due to unnatural causes.

During the making of the documentary, Mrs. Arafat provided the Al Jazeera team with a bag of her late husband’s personal effects, which she obtained from the Percy hospital.

The duffle bag included articles the late Palestinian leader had used shortly before his death in the French hospital – such as a toothbrush, a blood-stained hospital bonnet, a knitted cap which contained the deceased’s hair samples, as well as Arafat’s trademark kaffiyeh headdress.

The Al Jazeera team then sent Arafat’s personal effects to the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne, Switzerland, where scientists were surprised to detect “an unexplained, elevated amount” of unsupported (artificial) polonium-210 on Arafat’s belongings.

French hospital records show a number of tests were conducted on Arafat during his 17-day hospital stay, but he was not tested for polonium poisoning.

Relatively little was known about polonium poisoning before the 2006 death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London. Scientists admit that there are still vast uncovered areas of research since polonium poisoning remains a relatively new and relatively rare occurrence.

The team of experts in Lausanne did not authoritatively conclude Arafat’s death was due to poisoning, but that there were simply surprisingly high levels of unsupported polonium-210. Further tests, the experts concluded, were needed.

Following the conclusions of the Lausanne team, Mrs. Arafat requested blood and urine samples from the French hospital which were taken shortly before her late husband’s death. But she was told that the samples had been destroyed in 2008.

In the absence of other samples, experts interviewed in the documentary concluded that exhumation was the only alternative, but the process had to be done rapidly. Eight years is considered a limit to detect any traces of the deadly radioactive substance, according to the Swiss Institute of Radiation Physics.

Exhumation closed to the public

The findings of the documentary rapidly accelerated the developments on the Arafat case. Following a legal complaint filed by Mrs. Arafat, a French court opened a murder investigation into the Palestinian leader’s death in August.

A French team recently sought to question Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reported the Los Angeles Times, quoting Palestinian officials who requested anonymity.

But the French team’s request was rejected. “We will not allow any action that would infringe on our sovereignty,” Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian inquiry team, told the Los Angeles Times in an apparent reference to the French request.

On Tuesday, French experts will be working alongside colleagues from Switzerland and Russia.

At a press conference last week, Tirawi told reporters the experts will take samples from Arafat’s bones, which will be examined in their home countries.

Arafat will be reburied the same day with military honours, but the ceremony will be closed to the public. Tirawi did not specify when results would be announced but said the probe could take months.

Another possibility could be that the teams of experts may not be able to answer the myriad questions surrounding the death of the former Palestinian leader. Polonium-210 is known to rapidly decompose, and experts are divided over whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing.

There is no guarantee that Tuesday’s exhumation will solve the mystery of the Palestinian guerrilla-commander-turned peace negotiator’s last days. If that’s the case, Arafat’s death is guaranteed to go down in history as one of the great mysteries in the Arab world.

Nguồn: Dan Tri News

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