Middle East

Palestinian call for Arafat death probe backed by Tunis

Yasser Arafat. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

RAMALLAH: A Palestinian call for an international probe into Yasser Arafat's death won official backing from Tunisia on Thursday, after a report showed the iconic leader may have been poisoned.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki told the official Voice of Palestine radio on Thursday that such an enquiry could finally "close the file" on Arafat's mysterious death.

And Tunisia called for the Arab League to convene.

"We call for an urgent meeting of Arab League foreign ministers and the creation of an international committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death" of Arafat, Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem told private radio station Mosaique FM.

Malki said: "We are waiting for this Tunisian initiative to be translated into action and for the meeting to be held.

"Then we will ask for an international investigation committee to be formed similar to the one formed into the assassination of (Lebanese Prime Minister) Rafiq Hariri so we can solve so many of the unanswered questions.

"We want to show that the PA (Palestinian Authority) leadership and people are all anxious to know all the details surrounding Arafat's death, so we can close this file," he said.

On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera television broadcast the results of a nine-month probe it commissioned into the 2004 death of the veteran Palestinian leader that indicated he could have been poisoned with the radioactive substance polonium.

The next day Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who succeeded Arafat, endorsed exhuming his body from its mausoleum at the Palestinian presidency headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah for a forensic examination.

The supreme Palestinian Islamic authority, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein, said there was no religious law forbidding Arafat's exhumation.

"If it is necessary to examine a body for the needs of an inquiry and that requires its full or partial retrieval there is nothing to prevent that," he told AFP on Thursday.

Tunis hosted the Palestine Liberation Organization, of which Arafat was the chairman, after it was expelled from Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion and until the 1994 launch of Palestinian autonomy.

"We owe a debt to that great man, who had such an influence on the Palestinian national cause," Abdessalem said.

The Institute of Radiation Physics at Switzerland's University of Lausanne tested items belonging to Arafat at Al-Jazeera's request, including clothing which was handed to his widow Suha by the Paris military hospital where he died in November 2004 at the age of 75.

Suha Arafat gave Al-Jazeera permission to take the items, which contained strands of Arafat's hair and traces of sweat, urine and blood, for testing at several European laboratories, including the Swiss institute, which reported finding high levels of polonium.

Polonium, which is highly toxic, was used to kill Russian former spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking tea laced with the substance at a London restaurant.

"Polonium is a relatively new radioactive poison," the head of Israel's Abu Kabir forensic institute, Yehuda Hiss, told public radio.

"I would suggest taking samples of the earth over his grave and from what remains of the body after several years, including the skeleton, teeth and nails," the expert said.

"Polonium decays with time, but it is now possible to trace it through its most stable components," Hiss added.

Suha Arafat rejected an autopsy after her husband's death but on Wednesday told AFP that she was "immediately to send a formal letter to the Swiss laboratory that conducted the tests, to authorise collection of samples of the remains of the martyr Arafat to verify the results."

The nephew of the deceased, Nasser al-Qidwa, another family representative whose consent is required, has not yet formally expressed his wishes.

In an editorial entitled "Our people have a right to know," the Palestinian daily Al-Quds said the Al-Jazeera program "raises more questions than it answers about the perpetrators of the assassination" of Yasser Arafat.

"The most important question is: Could Israel have committed this crime alone, without help from (Palestinian) collaborators or without a flagrant failure of security measures intended to protect the president?" it asked.





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