Arafat could have died of poisoning – scientists

Findings may scuttle Middle East talks.

YASSER Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, may well have been poisoned with radioactive polonium.

NEW FINDINGS: Forensic tests on the exhumed remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004, have shown unexpectedly high levels of radioactive substance polonium-210

A team of international scientists has come to this conclusion in findings released yesterday that could solve a 10-year riddle but torpedo the latest Middle East peace process.

His remains, which were briefly exhumed last year, contained unusually high levels of polonium-210, a substance experts say can usually be obtained only from governments.

The conclusions are likely to reawaken allegations that the late guerilla leader – long a totemic symbol of the Palestinian national causes – was murdered, possibly by Israel, which considered him a terrorist.

They also threaten to deal a serious blow to peace talks that are already tottering under a barrage of mutual recriminations.

A 108-page report from the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland, said 18 times the normal levels of polonium were found in samples taken from his ribs and pelvis and in soil that had absorbed his decaying organs.

Scientists said they could assert with 83% confidence that Arafat was poisoned with polonium and said their findings “moderately support” that it was the cause of his death.

Polonium-210 is the same radioactive substance used to kill the defecting Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

It was slipped into his tea during a meeting in a hotel.

Arafat died aged 75 in November 2004 after becoming ill in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. His widow, Suha, now living in Paris, said it proved that her husband’s death was “a real crime, a political assassination”.

She said: “This has confirmed all our doubts. It is scientifically proved that he didn’t die a natural death and we have scientific proof that this man was killed.”

She stopped short of identifying possible culprits, saying her husband had many enemies.

David Barclay, a British forensic scientist who studied the report, called it a “smoking gun” and said he too was convinced that Arafat had been murdered. “Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning,” he told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, whose investigation last year into whether the former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader had been murdered triggered the forensic examinations.

“We found the smoking gun that caused his death. What we don’t know is who was holding the gun at the time. The main problem is the time-frame. If this was a murder that happened yesterday, you would have witnesses and cellphone records, e-mails, bank transfers. In a nine-year-old case that type of information will be hard to obtain.”

Scientists exhumed Arafat’s remains last November after al-Jazeera’s report provoked a fresh clamour over his death.

The report also prompted detectives in France to launch a murder investigation. Scientists handed the result of their findings to Palestinian officials in Geneva on Tuesday.

However, there were signs that the report could provoke disagreements among Palestinians. Ghassan Shaka’a, mayor of the West Bank city of Nablus and a PLO executive committee member, said not all the results of tests had been revealed.

The various Palestinian committees had decided to postpone their publication for several months “for political reasons”, he told The Daily Telegraph.

“We want to know who poisoned him and how they did it and all the details of this crime. Arafat was no ordinary president. He was a big symbol for the Palestinian people.”

Palestinians have long pointed the finger at Israel – pointing out that Arafat had been the subject of previous assassination attempts.

Israel blamed him for orchestrating the second Palestinian intifada that saw a wave of suicide bombings and denounced him as a “terrorist” unfit to be a negotiating partner.

Arafat was reported to have become ill after dinner one night in October 2004. He died on November 11.

The official cause of his death was given as a massive stroke but French physicians said they could not find the cause of his illness. — The Daily Telegraph