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Arafat may have been poisoned, say scientists

Photo: AFP

Swiss scientists have found “unexpectedly high levels” of polonium after carrying out tests on the remains of Yasser Arafat, suggesting the former Palestinian leader may have been poisoned, Al-Jazeera television reported Wednesday.


Yasser Arafat may have died as a consequence of polonium poisoning, a report by Swiss scientists published by Al-Jazeera television has revealed, prompting new allegations by his widow that the Palestinian leader was murdered.

The results of tests on Arafat’s remains “moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210”, said the 108 page report, posted on the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster's website.

Palestinian officials have long accused Israel of poisoning Arafat, a claim Israel has denied. Arafat died under mysterious circumstances at a French military hospital in 2004, a month after falling ill at his Israeli-besieged West Bank compound.

The findings reported Wednesday appear to be the most significant so far in an investigation into Arafat’s death initiated by his widow, Suha, and Al-Jazeera.

Last year, a team of experts, including from Lausanne University Hospital's Institute of Radiation Physics discovered traces of polonium-210, a deadly radioactive isotope, on some of Arafat’s belongings. Soil and bone samples were subsequently taken from Arafat’s grave in the West Bank.

Wednesday’s report reveals the full findings from the studies of those samples. The examination of the Arafat’s remains found “unexpectedly high levels” of polonium-210, the Swiss team wrote.

‘A shocking crime’

Suha Arafat told Al-Jazeera she was shocked and saddened by the findings.

“It’s a shocking, shocking crime to get rid of a great leader,” she said, without casting specific blame. In his final days, Arafat “was so ill, losing everything, his immunity”, she said. “He was shrinking day by day.”

Arafat’s widow demanded that a Palestinian committee that has been investigating her husband’s death now try to find “the real person who did it”.

The committee also received a copy of the report, but declined to comment.

The head of the committee, Tawfik Tirawi, said details would be presented at a news conference in two days, and that the Palestinian Authority would announce what it plans to do next.

Raanan Gissin, a former Israeli government spokesman, reiterated Wednesday that Israel had no role in Arafat’s death.

“It was a government decision not to touch Arafat at all,” he said, adding that “if anyone poisoned him, it could have been someone from his close circle.”

Arafat died November 11, 2004, a month after falling violently ill at his Ramallah compound.

French doctors said he died of a massive stroke and had suffered from a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC. But the records were inconclusive about what led to the DIC, which has numerous possible causes, including infections and liver disease.

'A perfect poison'

Polonium is a rare and highly lethal substance. The element can be a by product of the chemical processing of uranium, but usually is made artificially in a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator.

Less than 1 gram (0.035 ounces) of the silver powder is enough to kill. Polonium’s most famous victim was KGB agent-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006 after the substance was slipped into his tea.

Derek Hill, a professor in radiological science at University College London who was not involved in the investigation, said the levels of polonium-210 cited in the report seem “way above normal”.

“I would say it’s clearly not overwhelming proof, and there is a risk of contamination (of the samples), but it is a pretty strong signal,” he said. “It seems likely what they’re doing is putting a very cautious interpretation of strong data.”

He said polonium is “kind of a perfect poison” because it is so hard to detect unless experts look for it using specialised equipment generally found only in government laboratories.

French prosecutors are also conducting an investigation into Arafat’s death, opened in August last year at the request of Suha Arafat.

The French pathologists have not reported their conclusions publicly or shared any findings with Suha Arafat’s legal team. A spokeswoman for the French prosecutor’s office said the investigating magistrates had received no expert reports so far.

One of her lawyers said the Swiss institute’s report would be translated from English into French and handed over to the three magistrates who are investigating the case.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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