Investigators from France and Switzerland will conduct parallel probes into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Palestinian officials said Monday. His remains will be exhumed, at a date kept secret, to give each team a chance to draw samples to test for poisoning.
The two teams are acting separately on behalf of Arafat's widow Suha Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, who each had misgivings about the other's investigation.
The push to re-examine Arafat's 2004 death come after a Swiss lab's recent discovery of polonium-210, a deadly radioactive isotope, on clothes said to belong to the Palestinian leader. This fueled new suspicions of poisoning.
The French team is composed of criminal investigators acting at the request of Suha Arafat, while the Palestinian Authority invited the Swiss lab to also come to examine the remains of the longtime leader and determine how he died eight years ago. A spokesman for neither team could be reached immediately for comment.
Arafat's death in a French hospital in November 2004 has remained a mystery for many. While the immediate cause of death was a stroke, the underlying source of an illness he suffered in his final weeks has never been clear, leading to persistent, unproven conspiracy theories that he had cancer, AIDS or was poisoned.
Suha Arafat has long had rocky relations with the Palestinian Authority's president Mahmoud Abbas, and the probes' potential to be politically explosive appears to have fueled more distrust. She had asked the Palestinian Authority to suspend any other probe or ensure that it was coordinated with the French investigation. Some Palestinian officials, for their part, said they were unhappy with the way Suha Arafat had forced a foreign investigation on them.
While their probes are separate, the French and Swiss investigators are set to visit the grave together and will only be allowed one chance to draw samples, said Tawfik Tirawi, head of the Palestinian committee investigating the death.
"The grave will be opened only one time for the two teams to take the samples," he said.
That precaution may be part of an attempt by Palestinian officials to keep the exhumation out of the public eye in hopes of avoiding a spectacle.
A senior Palestinian official said the process of digging out Arafat's remains will be conducted privately. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss plans for the exhumation.
But keeping the event a secret will likely be a challenge. Arafat lies in a giant mausoleum built by the Palestinians outside government headquarters in a central area of Ramallah. The official declined to discuss how the public and media would be kept away.
A date for the exhumation is also being kept under wraps. Tirawi refused to reveal a date, saying only that the teams were working on coordinating their arrival.
Arafat, who was 75, died at a French military hospital on Nov. 11, 2004, two weeks after he was rushed there from his West Bank headquarters with a mysterious illness.
According to French medical records, he had suffered inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC, before the stroke.
The records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC, which has numerous causes including infections, colitis and liver disease. The uncertainty fanned to speculation about the cause of his death, including the possibility of AIDS or poisoning.
Many in the Arab world believe he was killed by Israel, a charge Israel vociferously denies.
Arafat was the face of the Palestinian struggle for independence for four decades and remains a beloved figure in Palestinian society.
Israel viewed him as an obstacle to peace, holding him responsible for the Palestinian uprising that broke out in 2000 and confining him to his headquarters in Ramallah in his final years.