'Very, very ill' Yasser Arafat heading for Paris

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The seriously ailing Yasser Arafat was being flown to Paris today for tests to determine the exact cause of his illness after Israel lifted a two-year travel ban on the 75-year-old Palestinian president.

The decision to allow him to fly to France - with the co-operation of its President, Jacques Chirac - came after his wife, Suhar, arrived from Paris to join an international team of doctors at his bedside, in the first reunion with her husband since the beginning of the intifada four years ago.

The way was cleared for Mr Arafat to travel abroad after the Israeli government went against previous practice by guaranteeing, if the treatment is successful, that he can return to his Ramallah compound. He was taken by helicopter to Amman, Jordan, where he walked to a small white jet that was thought to be a French government aircraft.

As Palestinian politicians began in private to discuss a possible succession to their leader if he does not fully recover, the moderate Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi told CNN that no single person was likely to take over from Mr Arafat if he failed to recover, or while he is unable to perform the day-to-day running of the authority.

"President Arafat is a man who is, as we say, larger than life in many ways. I doubt there will be any one person who will be able to take [over] not just his symbolic stature, but his functions as well," she said.

The illness, described up to the middle of this week by Palestinian ministers as no more serious than a bout of stomach flu - and monitored closely by Israeli and US officials - has lasted for two weeks but took a serious turn for the worse on Wednesday night. Mr Arafat has been treated at a two-room clinic at his headquarters in Ramallah. On Wednesday, he vomited, collapsed and fell unconscious for about 10 minutes, a bodyguard said.

Amid signs that medical staff were unsure of the exact cause of the illness, one doctor said that he was suffering from a potentially fatal blood disease, which required more tests to determine its exact cause.

The doctor, who declined to give his name, said: "His blood cells, which should normally destroy microbes, are currently destroying blood platelets." The illness could have been "an inflammation caused by a virus, a cancer or blood poisoning", he said, adding that the supplementary tests could not be conducted at his sandbagged Muqata compound.

"The doctors think that he must be transferred abroad for further examinations in order to receive the care needed, for he could die if the condition persists."

In an attempt to reassure the many Palestinians for whom, despite their criticisms of the Palestinian Authority, he remains the supreme symbol of their struggle for statehood over a generation, officials at the Muqata have issued a still photograph and a video clip of a haggard and pyjama-clad Mr Arafat seated and joking with aides and his doctors. No soundtrack was issued with the pictures.

As his wife arrived in the West Bank city from Paris amid heavy security, her mother told reporters that she would take the final decision on whether he would be moved to Paris.

The Palestinian leader spent most of the day sleeping, though Ms Ashrawi, a frequent visitor to the compound during the day, said that his condition had improved and that he had "held down" some breakfast cereal, in contrast to the previous day when he had been unable to eat without vomiting.

Doctors had successfully encouraged him to take food despite the Ramadan fast, Ms Ashrawi said, but he had been fed intravenously. She added: "Of course I am concerned, but I hope his instincts for survival will serve him as they have so often in the past."

Officials insisted yesterday that Mr Arafat, a devout Muslim, had been well enough to take part in morning prayers.

While Ramallah and the West Bank remained largely calm in response to the president's illness, Israeli officials have long made contingency plans for possible widespread disorder after his death. A leaked document earlier this year from the foreign ministry envisaged the possibility that large crowds of Palestinians might take him for burial at the Jerusalem site of the revered al-Aqsa mosque - known to Jews as the Temple Mount. Israeli authorities have earmarked a possible burial site for the leader in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, met his Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, yesterday to discuss the implications of Mr Arafat's illness.

The Foreign Minister, Sylvan Shalom, said that a Palestinian Authority without Mr Arafat could become a partner for peace. "We always said we would be willing to talk to a Palestinian leadership that would be willing, once and for all, to bring an end to the bloodshed," he said.


Saturday 16 October: A team of Egyptian doctors visits Yasser Arafat after he is unable to complete the first day of Ramadan prayers and does not follow his usual ritual of receiving delegations at the Muqata for his holiday blessings. Gall-stones are cited as the problem.

Sunday 24: Delegation of five Tunisian doctors arrives at the Muqata. Palestinian officials insist Mr Arafat merely has a bad case of the flu but rumours fly that his condition is more serious - a stroke or intestinal cancer are suggested.

Tuesday 26: Mr Arafat suffers bouts of vomiting and stomach pain. Undergoes medical tests under anaesthetic. Breaks Ramadan fast owing to weakness and, allegedly, has an X-ray and ultrasound. Reports circulate that the problem lies with a large gall-stone.

Wednesday 27: Mr Arafat's health worsens; officials say he is slipping in and out of consciousness.

Yesterday: Mr Arafat reportedly "very, very ill" despite being able to eat, talk and pray. Will be flown out of country to be treated in a French hospital.