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Arafat's grave is opened to investigate murder claim

The bones of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat were removed from his tomb yesterday to see whether he was poisoned.

Mr Arafat died at the age of 75 in Percy military hospital near Paris in November 2004 from an unexplained illness. His wife refused to allow an autopsy and the French doctors who treated him never announced the cause of his death. Many Palestinians suspect he was assassinated by Israel – an accusation that Israel denies.

Tawfiq Tirawi, the former Palestinian intelligence chief heading an official committee investigating Mr Arafat's death, said that if evidence emerged that he had been murdered, the Palestinians would take the case to the International Criminal Court.

"Be confident that the body of Arafat was not touched by a non-Palestinian hand today. Only the Palestinians, who gave the samples to the others," said Mr Tirawi, who brushed away tears as he described the partial exhumation in the mausoleum built in the Mukata compound where Mr Arafat spent the final years of his life. "When the results of the investigation are disclosed, we will find the killers," he vowed.

Shielded by tarpaulins, workers began at daybreak digging through a metre of soil laid over the grave to reveal Arafat's skeleton. Plans for a full military re-burial were cancelled after experts decided they could take the necessary samples without moving the remains.

Instead, they were re-covered and then Palestinian dignitaries led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad held a wreath-laying ceremony.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was absent as he was en route to New York for the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood.

Acting on the orders of French magistrates, a team of Palestinian doctors took samples from the skeleton and handed them over to French, Russian and Swiss scientists.

"It was a very distressing moment for me as a Palestinian," said Health Minister Hani Abdeen.

"It wasn't really something nice to open the grave of somebody who has been buried for eight years in order to confirm the cause of his death."

"I disagree with opening the tomb. The truth was... revealed by Al Jazeera. He was poisoned. There is no need for additional evidence," said Ahmad Abu Ala'am, 30.