Arafat undergoes tests for leukaemia after flight to military hospital in France

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Yasser Arafat was undergoing tests for possible leukaemia at a military hospital outside Paris last night after being airlifted from his Ramallah headquarters to an anxious farewell from Palestinian well-wishers.

Yasser Arafat was undergoing tests for possible leukaemia at a military hospital outside Paris last night after being airlifted from his Ramallah headquarters to an anxious farewell from Palestinian well-wishers.

The seriously ill Palestinian president was taken by stretcher into the Hôpital d'Instruction des Armées de Percy after landing by helicopter with a team of aides and his wife, Suha, amid heavy security.

Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Authority's representative in Paris, said doctors would need several days to diagnose Mr Arafat, but added: "We are very relieved that he was able to travel, that he arrived in good shape and was conscious. I talked to him."

She thanked President Jacques Chirac for allowing his treatment in France and claimed the "unhealthy" conditions in which Mr Arafat had been confined in his Muqata compound had contributed to his condition.

Mr Arafat left Ramallah at about 7.20am on board a Jordanian helicopter wearing an olive-coloured greatcoat and a furry hat. There were no large crowds to see him off, but as he was helped on to the helicopter, scores of bystanders - including several in tears - along with bodyguards and officials, chanted using his nom de guerre, "We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Abu Ammar" and, a favourite among Fatah supporters, "The mountain cannot be shaken by the wind".

He smiled and talked with an official Jordanian welcoming party when he arrived for the 30-minute stop-off in Amman. "God willing, I will come back," Mr Arafat told well-wishers shortly before the plane departed for Paris.

Meanwhile, one reason, beside the humanitarian motives cited by Israeli officials, being canvassed for the decision to allow Mr Arafat to travel to Paris for treatment is the possibility, if Mr Arafat died in Ramallah, of angry protests by Palestinians seeking to blame Israel for his two-and-half year confinement to the Muqata compound in Ramallah.

In a commentary in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, Ben Caspit, who has close contacts among the Israeli authorities, wrote: "'It is better that Arafat die somewhere else, not here' is the gist of the decision to release the dying chairman of the Palestinian Authority." He added that "everyone in the security establishment was united in the opinion that everything possible must be done to let Arafat die somewhere else, as far as possible from the Holy Land."

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, granted the request for Mr Arafat to be allowed to travel - and to return to Ramallah if he recovers - after a personal telephoned appeal from Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister.

Mr Sharon's office indicated yesterday that no decision had been taken about the return of his body to Palestinian soil in the event of his death.

Ra'anan Gissin, the Prime Minister's spokesman, said: "We are asked to expedite the travel of a seriously ill man on humanitarian grounds. That was all that was on the agenda." He added: "The questions that you raise will be dealt with if and when they arise, at that time."

There has been active discussion among Palestinian politicians about two different but related questions: whether another senior figure, Mahmoud Abbas - the former Palestinian prime minister, known more familiarly as Abu Mazen and widely seen as the most likely candidate - would assume day-to-day running of the Palestinian Authority in Mr Arafat's absence; and whether and in what circumstances Mr Abbas or another candidate would succeed the Palestinian leader if he is unable to continue.

Western diplomats and some Palestinian politicians, however, cautioned against the assumption that Mr Arafat had given up the reins of power, despite the now widely accepted severity of his illness. For the time being Mr Arafat appears not to have signed away temporary powers to Mr Abbas despite reports that he was under pressure to do so, and most of his private office staff have travelled with him to Paris.

According to one diplomatic source, the ailing president told Mr Qureia before leaving Ramallah to carry on as normal as prime minister.

Nevertheless the possibility that Mr Arafat's era is ending has triggered a spate of soul searching in the Israeli media about future strategy towards the Palestinians.

The prominent Israeli analyst Barry Rubin predicted in the Jerusalem Post that a period of inconclusive rivalry would ensue and claimed that "after Arafat, at least for a while, there will be literally no one to talk to". He added, however, that there was at least "the possibility of change" - a situation which had not hitherto existed".

More pointedly Ofer Shelah, in Yedhiot Ahronot, said that when Mr Arafat died, just as Palestinians would have to confront the need for reforms resisted by the PA president, so Israel would have to confront the need for a separate Palestinian state once its excuse for refusing to negotiate had gone.

It would be a "conceptual day of reckoning for Israel which will no longer have a scarecrow at which to direct its fire", he said.


By John Lichfield

Yasser Arafat's new home in France is a sleek modern hospital with strong specialisations in treating blood and cancer cases.

The Hôpital d'Instruction des Armées de Percy, where Mr Arafat has been given a VIP suite, is a brand new trauma centre.

The Palestinian leader arrived at the Villacoublay military airfield a few kilometres away after flying from Amman on a private jet chartered by the French government.

A high stone wall surrounds Percy Hospital and the street leading to it has been sealed off by police. Outside, a group of well-wishers gathered, holding bunches of flowers and waving Palestinian flags. "I am waiting for Yasser Arafat to tell him that we are with him," said Fatima Mera, a 35-year-old French woman of Moroccan origin. "We hope he will leave here and continue the struggle for the Palestinian people."

France has maintained close ties with Mr Arafat, arguing he was still central to any Middle East peace, even while other Western states avoided him in recent years.

Mr Arafat's arrival in France was controversial, however. Relatives of the French victims of bomb attacks in Israel have asked the country's anti-terrorist judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, to question the veteran Palestinian leader.

President Jacques Chirac said his government had flown Mr Arafat to Paris at the request of his entourage, who were in "an apparently difficult situation concerning his state of health".