Palestinians 'burying Arafat alive', wife says

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A team of Palestinian leaders arrived in Paris last night despite a televised outburst by Yasser Arafat's wife, Suha, in which she accused them of making the trip to "bury alive" the dangerously ill President of the Palestinian Authority.

The delegation, which is determined to establish the gravity of Mr Arafat's condition, will question officials and medical staff before meeting the President of France, Jacques Chirac this afternoon after reinstating the journey they had initially cancelled in response to the highly emotional attack on their motives by Mrs Arafat.

In the early hours yesterday Mrs Arafat, 41, telephoned al-Jazeera ­ the most-watched satellite channel in the Arab world ­ from the French military hospital where her 75-year-old husband is in intensive care and exclaimed in Arabic: "Let it be known to the honest Palestinian people that a bunch of those who want to inherit are coming to Paris."

Using Mr Arafat's nom de guerre, the Sorbonne-educated Suha Arafat added: "I tell you they are trying to bury Abu Ammar alive. He is all right, and he is going home. God is Great."

The team ­ Abu Mazen, who is the PLO secretary and former prime minister, Ahmad Qureia, the Prime Minister, and Nabil Shaath, the Foreign Minister, and the Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker, Rawhi Fattouh ­ will also meet the French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, who described Mr Arafat's condition as "very complex, very serious and stable right now".

Palestinian officials have been increasingly infuriated at what they see as Mrs Arafat's monopoly of control over access to Mr Arafat's bedside and over the information medical staff have been permitted to give about how critical her husband's condition is.

According to one PLO source only Mrs Arafat, Ramsi Khoury, his principal private secretary, his senior bodyguard Yusuf Abdullah, and his nephew Nasr al-Qidwa, the PLO's representative at the UN, had been allowed to see him in person.

Mr Qureia would only say that the outburst by "our sister" Mrs Arafat ­ with whom any final decision on whether to switch off Mr Arafat's life support is presumed to lie ­was "unfortunate".

But Bassam Abu Sharif, a long-time aide of Mr Arafat said yesterday that the President's wife ­ who did not see her husband for four years until she flew to Ramallah to be with him 10 days ago ­ "has no right to interfere in politics or to insult the leadership. Yasser Arafat's family is the Palestinian people, not Suha Arafat."

Palestinian officials were more reluctant than members of the Palestinian public to attribute Mrs Arafat's outburst to worries about a possible wrangle over the future of Mr Arafat's personal fortune ­ estimates about the allegedly multi-billion dollar size of which vary wildly. The French authorities and some members of the PLO have been trying to inquire into an alleged £11m transferred to her from Palestinian Authority funds over the past four years.

Instead, Palestinian politicians suggested that Mrs Arafat had long had a personally hostile relationship with Abu Mazen ­ a moderate widely seen as a potential successor to Mr Arafat ­ and was motivated by what one Arafat aide claimed were "egoistic" reasons.

One PLO executive member claimed yesterday that she was "obsessed" with the belief that there was a "conspiracy" against her husband and added: "When she arrived here before his departure from [the Muqata compound in Ramallah] she was screaming: 'Do not take him from the Muqata ... You want to get rid of him'."

Meanwhile one leaflet that was being handed out in the name of the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade in Ramallah suggested that Marwan Barghouti, who is currently in an Israeli prison, would be seen as a plausible successor to Mr Arafat.