Al Jazeera probe suggests high levels of polonium

A nine-month investigation by Al Jazeera suggesting that Yasser Arafat may have died of polonium poisoning and not of natural causes has prompted Palestinians to demand an international investigation into the circumstances of their celebrated leader’s death.

Arafat died in a Paris military hospital in 2004 after he was airlifted from his besieged compound in Ramallah, where he had taken seriously ill. Arafat’s death triggered a torrent of conspiracy theories, especially because an autopsy was not conducted to establish the cause of death — unusual given Arafat’s larger-than-life international stature.

The case now appears set to be reopened after an investigation by Al Jazeera found that Arafat’s personal belongings, including his clothes, toothbrush and kaffiyeh — the headdress inseparable from his persona — contained elevated levels of polonium, a highly radioactive element. The Al Jazeera investigation centred on the findings at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, where scientists analysed Arafat’s personal items supplied by Suha Arafat, his wife.

The Swiss facility maintains that Arafat’s bones could provide more evidence to substantiate the possibility of poisoning — an inference that has led Ms. Arafat to call for the exhumation of her husband’s remains from his grave in Ramallah, the West Bank city.

In response to the report, the top Palestinian leadership has promptly called for an international investigation. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas waded into the controversy by saying through his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah that he saw no reason why Arafat’s body should not be exhumed, after which facts could be established utilising “Arab and international scientific expertise”. “There are no political or religious reasons that prevent researching this issue,” said Mr. Abu Rudeinah, “including the exhumation of Arafat’s body by a reliable and trustworthy medical and scientific authority”.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called for an international investigation on Arafat’s death, on the lines of the probe ordered to identify the assassins of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, who died in a car bombing in Beirut in 2005.

“[It] is a must,” Al Jazeera quoted Mr. Erekat as saying. “And we will do it first through the United Nations Security Council. We hope everyone will cooperate with us, because we seek the truth and nothing but the truth.”

In Lausanne, Dr. Francois Bochud, director of the institute that had carried out the analysis, confirmed “unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported [unnatural] polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr. Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids”. Doctors in Lausanne also ruled out other possible causes of Arafat’s death, such as leukaemia, cirrhosis of the liver and AIDS.

Scientists in Lausanne wanted to build their case further by studying samples of Arafat’s blood and urine taken at the Percy Military Hospital in Paris, but were told that the hospital had destroyed them. With the findings strongly suggesting that the Palestinian leader may had died due to unnatural causes, Ms. Arafat said she now had “something to explain to the Palestinian people, to the Arab and Muslim generation all over the world, that it was not a natural death, it was a crime.”

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