Arafat's fate depends on 'will of God', say Palestinian leaders as his coma deepens

The comatose Yasser Arafat's life was in the gravest danger last night. A visiting team of senior Palestinian politicians declared that his fate now depended on his inert body's capacity to resist, and "the will of God".

The comatose Yasser Arafat's life was in the gravest danger last night. A visiting team of senior Palestinian politicians declared that his fate now depended on his inert body's capacity to resist, and "the will of God".

The four Palestinian leaders emerged from consultations with doctors at the French military hospital where Mr Arafat is in intensive care to dismiss another spate of rumours that he had died. But they confirmed that the 75-year-old Palestinian President's coma had deepened overnight.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, went out of his way to dismiss reports that a decision to switch off Mr Arafat's life support was under consideration, declaring: "I want to rule out any question of euthanasia. People talk like his life is plugged in and plugged out. This is totally ridiculous. We Muslims do not accept euthanasia."

Without referring to an earlier announcement here by the Palestinian minister Saeb Erekat that Mr Arafat had suffered a brain haemorrhage, Mr Shaath declared: "His brain, his heart and his lungs are still functioning and he is alive."

But Mr Shaath made no attempt to conceal the seriousness of Mr Arafat's condition, telling a Paris press conference after the leaders met President Jacques Chirac that his fate was "in the hands of God ... and the doctors who are taking care of him". He repeated: "He will live or die depending on his body's ability to resist and on the will of God."

The sombre assessment came as senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah announced that they now wanted to bury Mr Arafat in the battered Muqata compound in Ramallah where he has been confined for the past two and half years - a confinement that Mr Shaath said last night had contributed to the illness.

While Mr Shaath refused to be drawn on details of burial plans, Tayeb Abdul Rahim, the secretary to the Palestinian Authority presidency, said that in the event of Mr Arafat's death "we have to do all the arrangements in the Muqata because it is one of the Palestinian citadels of steadfastness embodied by the President".

Israel, which has made clear it will prevent Mr Arafat being buried in Jerusalem as he has long wanted, has strongly indicated it would prefer him to be buried in Gaza. But although the Palestinians' intention to hold the funeral in Ramallah will intensify Israeli security worries because of the West Bank city's proximity to Jerusalem, it may find the plan hard to resist, particularly since Western politicians and diplomats will find it easier to attend than if the funeral takes place in Gaza.

While the West Bank has remained calm, there have been fears in the Israeli government that large crowds of mourning Palestinians could try to converge on Jerusalem's Old City. Mr Shaath said that because of the seriousness of Mr Arafat's condition Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, had been the only member of the team in Paris able to see Mr Arafat. But the others, including Abu Mazen, the acting chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Rawhi Fattouh, the parliament's speaker, and himself, had talked to doctors.

He said all had been "embraced" by Suha Arafat, who on Monday had stunned much of the Arab world by denouncing the visiting team for trying to "bury alive" her husband.

After a spate of rumours, many fuelled by Palestinian officials and politicians, about the nature of Mr Arafat's illness, Mr Shaath ruled out suggestions that the President might have been poisoned. "We don't have a full understanding of why his health has deteriorated. We know what it is not. It is not malignancy or cancer anywhere in his body, and doctors ruled out poisoning today."

Instead, he claimed that doctors leaned towards the explanation that Mr Arafat's age, coupled with his "difficult life incarcerated in his little office" with "little oxygen" and poor sanitation had contributed to a series of digestive tract ailments that had culminated in intestinal inflammation.

In the first authoritative statements of the transitional leadership's political intentions, Mr Shaath, who was flying back to Ramallah overnight, said that it planned elections within 60 days as required by the basic law. The Palestinians have argued that it will be up to Israel to make campaigning possible - for example by liftingroadblocks that make free movement impossible between parts of the occupied territories.

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