Arafat body to be exhumed on Tuesday in murder inquiry

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The body of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be exhumed on Tuesday, eight years after his death, in an investigation to establish if he was murdered, a Palestinian official said on Saturday.

A French court opened a murder inquiry in August into Arafat's death in Paris after a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of radioactive polonium on his clothing, which was supplied by his widow, Suha.

Tawfiq al-Tirawi, in charge of the Palestinian committee overseeing the investigation, told reporters in Ramallah on Saturday "it is a painful necessity" to exhume the body of Arafat, who came to symbolise the Palestinian quest for statehood throughout decades of war and peace with Israel.

Tirawi said the Palestinians had "evidence which suggests Arafat was assassinated by Israelis". Israel denies any involvement.

The exhumation and renewed allegations of Israeli involvement could stir further tension between the Palestinians and Israel, which are observing a truce after a week of fierce fighting in Gaza.

Any positive results for polonium could rekindle Palestinian hostility toward Israel and suspicions that a local collaborator may have poisoned him under directions from the Jewish state.

Allegations of foul play have long surrounded Arafat's demise. He died in a Paris hospital in November 2004, a month after being flown, seriously ill, from his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

French doctors who treated him in his final days said they could not establish the cause of death, and no autopsy was performed in deference to his widow's request at the time, when Arafat died at 75.

Eight years is considered a limit to detect any traces of the deadly radioactive substance, according to the Swiss Institute of Radiation Physics.

Tirawi said Arafat's body would be exhumed from its limestone mausoleum in Ramallah, away from the public or media presence, and separate samples will be taken by the French and Swiss forensic teams, as well as a Russian team of experts, who the Palestinians invited to help with the examination.

After the investigation "the body of leader Abu Ammar will be returned (reburied) in a military ceremony that is befitting him as a leader of the Palestinian people", Tirawi said, using Arafat's non de guerre.

Tirawi said results could take up to several months to be announced.

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