RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has given his permission to exhume the remains of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, a top aide said Monday, days after a Swiss institute reported finding elevated traces of a radioactive substance on the late leader's belongings.
The findings by Switzerland's Institute of Radiation Physics were inconclusive, but revived speculation that Arafat was poisoned.
The legendary Palestinian leader died Nov. 11, 2004 in a French military hospital, a month after falling violently ill at his government compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
The Swiss institute has said it would need to examine Arafat's remains for conclusive findings, though a clear-cut outcome is not assured because of the decay of the substance, polonium-210, over the years. Last week, Abbas said he was willing, in principle, to allow an autopsy, provided he receives permission from religious authorities and Arafat's family.
Arafat was buried in a mausoleum that has become the centerpiece of the Ramallah compound where Abbas' headquarters are located. The exhumation would create a huge spectacle that could upset some devout Muslims, though there seems to be a widespread desire among Palestinians to determine the cause of death.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said Monday that the Palestinian president has decided to invite the Swiss experts to Ramallah in order to examine the remains. "We are on the way to an autopsy," Erekat told The Associated Press.
Erekat said a Palestinian medical expert would contact the Swiss institute later Monday or Tuesday to offer the invitation. Erekat said an autopsy could be conducted as soon as the Swiss team arrives. There was no immediate comment from the institute.
Arafat's widow, Suha, has repeatedly called for exhuming the remains. She worked closely with the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, which conducted an investigation into Arafat's death and received permission from her to submit her husband's belongings for testing. The top Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories has also given his blessing to exhuming the remains.
Arafat's nephew, Nasser al-Kidwa, has been cool to the idea of an autopsy but signaled he will not stand in the way.
"Our belief was always that it was an unusual death, and most likely he (Arafat) was poisoned. Now all indications say he was poisoned," al-Kidwa told AP. Al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, heads the Yasser Arafat Foundation and is the custodian of Arafat's memory.
Erekat suggested that Abbas was firm in his decision to move forward.
Polonium-210 is a highly lethal substance, and less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces) of the silver powder is sufficient to kill. Because polonium-210 decays rapidly, experts have been divided over whether testing Arafat's remains would provide a solid clue eight years after his death.
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. Someone poisoned by polonium would experience multiple organ failure as alpha radiation particles bombard the liver, kidneys and bone marrow from within.
French doctors said in 2004 that Arafat, then 75, died of a massive stroke. According to French medical records, he had suffered inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC.
But the records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC, which has numerous possible causes, including infections and liver disease. Outside experts who reviewed the available records on behalf of The Associated Press were also unable to pinpoint the underlying cause.
In the last three years of his life, Arafat was confined by Israel to his Ramallah walled compound, the Muqata. The Palestinian leader was seen by Israel and the U.S. as an obstacle to peace efforts and a sponsor of attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis.
Israel has emphatically denied a role in Arafat's death. Officials say that with Arafat locked in to his headquarters, there was no need to kill him, and argue that an assassination would only have destabilized what already was a difficult period of heavy fighting. Senior Palestinian officials have repeatedly accused Israel of killing Arafat, saying it had the means, motive and opportunity.
A renewed investigation could lead to uncomfortable questions for the Palestinian leadership. If an autopsy was to reveal that Arafat was indeed poisoned, the probe would also have to look at Palestinians who had access to him.
The Al-Jazeera TV's investigation is also embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority, which launched its own probe after Arafat's death and failed to discover any leads.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in the West Bank contributed to this report.