Yasir Arafat exhumation hopes to quell poison quandary

Yasir Arafat

One of the Middle East's greatest political mysteries will come a step closer to being solved on Tuesday when scientists exhume iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's remains to see if he was poisoned.

"It is very painful. It is a shock, and it is not easy for myself or my daughter," Arafat's widow Suha Arafat said by telephone from her home in Malta ahead of the highly controversial procedure.

"But we must do it to turn the page on the great secrecy surrounding his death. If there was a crime, it must be solved."

Rumours and speculation have surrounded Arafat's death ever since a quick deterioration of his condition saw his passing at the Percy military hospital in November 2004 at the age of 75.

French doctors were unable to say what killed the Palestinians' first democratically elected president and an autopsy was never performed at his widow's request.

But many Palestinians believed he was poisoned by Israel -- a theory that gained ground in July when Al-Jazeera reported Swiss findings showing abnormal quantities of the radioactive substance polonium on Arafat's personal effects.

France followed that up in late August by opening a formal murder inquiry at Suha's request. Polonium was the same substance that killed Russian ex-spy and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev dismissed the probe as misguided.

"Israel was not involved in the death of Arafat," Regev said in July. "All the medical files are in the hands of the Palestinians and it was not Israel who is preventing their publication."

The laborious process at the site of Arafat's mausoleum in the West Bank's Muqataa complex from which the late leader ruled will see French experts work alongside colleagues from Switzerland and Russia.

The Swiss are here because they were the first to analyse the Arafat samples submitted to them by Al-Jazeera.

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