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Arafat exhumation today

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

French judges in charge of the investigation arrived on Sunday evening in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat’s mausoleum stands in the grounds of the Muqataa complex from which the late leader ruled and where President Mahmud Abbas has his headquarters.

Rumours and speculation have surrounded Arafat’s death ever since a quick deterioration of his health saw his passing at the Percy military hospital near Paris 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 opened a formal murder inquiry in late August 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 investigation process will see French experts work alongside colleagues from Switzerland and Russia. The Swiss are there because they were the first to analyse the Arafat samples submitted to them by Al-Jazeera.

The Russians’ presence has not been fully explained by the Palestinians. However, the country is responsible for most of the world’s polonium production and should therefore have the expertise to handle remains of the dan-gerous substance.

Today’s operation will be hidden from public view by a blue plastic sheeting designed to give discretion to a procedure that many – including some family members – have compared to a desecration.

The exhumation touches on “some highly sensitive issues,” one Western diplomat in Ramallah conceded, as workers prepared to assume their task.

Experts believe that little will remain of Arafat’s tissue and that the scientists will only be able to secure samples of his bone.

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