Arafat's remains exhumed to test for poison

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RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Eight years after Yasser Arafat's mysterious death, his political heirs opened his grave yesterday and let forensics experts take samples from his remains, defying strong cultural taboos in search of evidence that the icon of Palestinian nationalism was poisoned.

Palestinians have claimed for years that Israel poisoned Arafat, who died in a French hospital. Israel has denied the charges.

The exhumation marked the end of months of procedural wrangling but only the beginning of the testing. Palestinian officials said it would take at least three months to get results and, even then, they might not be conclusive.

Workers opened Arafat's tomb before daybreak, laying bare the remains about 13 feet below ground level, the Palestinian health minister said. A Palestinian forensics examiner took some 20 samples and handed them to Swiss, French and Russian experts, officials said.

Huge sheets of blue tarpaulin draped over Arafat's mausoleum hid the scene from view, part of an attempt by Palestinian officials to minimize any potential backlash against digging up the grave of Arafat, still widely revered in the Palestinian territories.

By midmorning, the grave was resealed, and Palestinian officials laid wreaths of flowers to signal Arafat's reburial.

The three teams will separately analyze the samples for possible poison, including polonium-210, a lethal radioactive substance first detected in elevated amounts on some of Arafat's clothing this summer.

Polonium disintegrates rapidly, and experts have cautioned that too much time may have passed since Arafat's death to reach a conclusive result.

Polonium was used in the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned Russian government critic. Litvinenko blamed the Kremlin for poisoning him.

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