Bones of Arafat can solve riddle of his death

Matthew Kalman sees investigators go to work on the tomb of Palestinian leader

The bones of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat were uncovered from his tomb yesterday so that samples could be taken for analysis 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 strongly denies. Tawfiq Tirawi, the former Palestinian intelligence chief heading an official committee investigating Mr Arafat's death, told reporters in Ramallah 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," said Mr Tirawi 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.

After drilling through a layer of concrete, workers began at daybreak digging through a metre of soil laid over the grave to reveal Arafat's skeleton.

Experts decided they could take the necessary samples without moving his remains. They were re-covered and then Palestinian dignitaries led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad held a simple wreath-laying ceremony.

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, was absent because he was on the way to New York for tomorrow's United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood – with the bid last night securing the potentially crucial backing of France.

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 for examination. "It was a very distressing moment for me as a Palestinian," said Palestinian Health Minister, Hani Abdeen. "It wasn't really something nice to open the grave of somebody who has been buried for eight years to confirm the cause of his death."

"We did not know exactly what to expect because the burial was eight years ago. Experts in forensic medicine informed us we were going to see probably just a skeleton. This is what came to light," he said. "Twenty samples were taken. They were minute samples, biopsies. They were divided into four portions and each team was given one," Mr Abdeen explained.

"People are really anxious to know what was the cause of death. People are thinking that he was poisoned. If it was really due to a toxin that was administered, then they want to know, they want to reach the truth," he added.

The French murder inquiry began after an investigation last July by the Al-Jazeera television network in which the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland said they had discovered significant traces of the rare radioactive element polonium-210 on the late leader's clothing and toothbrush provided by his wife, Suha. Polonium is highly poisonous and was used to kill former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Mrs Arafat, who now lives with the couple's daughter in Malta, filed an official complaint asking the French authorities to open a criminal investigation into whether her husband was murdered. Israel has always denied it had anything to do with his death, although many Palestinians believe he was poisoned on the instructions of his arch-enemy, Ariel Sharon, then Israel's prime minister.

Ordinary Palestinians told The Independent they had mixed feelings about the exhumation and where an investigation might lead.

"I disagree with opening the tomb because the truth was known in France and revealed by Al-Jazeera. He was poisoned. There is no need for additional evidence," said Ahmad Abu Ala'am, 30, a former officer in Palestinian intelligence and a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades who spent three years in Mr Arafat's compound under the late leader's personal protection. "Israel was involved in poisoning him but I believe that some Palestinian leaders also collaborated with Israel and they are involved in his killing. We need to reveal their names."

Burden of proof the autopsy

If Arafat was poisoned with Polonium there is unlikely to be any left in his body. Polonium 210 has a half-life of 50 days and Arafat has been dead for eight years.

When the toxicologists begin their analysis of the tissue samples from the body they will be looking for isotopes produced by the radioactive decay of polonium.

It will not be an easy task, involving the use of sophisticated methods such as X-ray diffraction and calculations about probabilities. In the Litvinenko case, toxicologists were able to observe the patient's clinical signs and compare them with what they found in the lab. They can't do that with Arafat.

Depending on what they find, interpreting its significance will be tricky – and open to challenge. Just because a substance is present doesn't mean it is the cause of death.

Home Office forensic pathologist, Stuart Hamilton, said: "If it were found, can they prove beyond reasonable doubt that is what killed him? Have they excluded the other possibilities – including the haemorrhagic stroke that is supposed to have killed him?"

Jeremy Laurance

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