Arafat's 'ill health' causes alarm

Jerusalem - Speculation intensified last night about the health of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, when reports from Tunis suggested that he was seriously ill, and about to be transferred to hospital in Amman, Jordan, writes Sarah Helm.

The news spread alarm as it came just two weeks before Mr Arafat is expected to arrive in the new Palestinian enclave of Jericho. He is to take charge of the Palestinian National Authority, which is to oversee self-rule. However, senior Palestinians in the West Bank, who were in contact last night with Mr Arafat's aides, said the reports had been exaggerated and Mr Arafat's ailment was not serious.

'I have been told it is nothing serious,' said Hanan Ashrawi, the former Palestinian spokeswoman, who had spoken to colleagues in Amman and Tunis. 'Mr Arafat is suffering from flu following an angina problem. He is fine. There is nothing to worry about.'

The PLO, which has its headquarters in Tunis, said in a statement that its chairman had rested 'for some hours' after catching a cold. The statement was signed by Hakam Balawi, the PLO ambassador to Tunis and a member of the mainstream Fatah central committee.

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