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Lausanne researchers to examine Arafat’s body

Yasser Arafat's widow Souha has asked Swiss researchers to investigate her husband's death Keystone

A team of Swiss scientists has been given the go-ahead to test the exhumed body of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for traces of radioactive polonium. Poisoning by this substance is suspected as a possible cause in Arafat’s 2004 death.

This content was published on August 24, 2012 - 10:24
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Researchers from the Institute of Radiation Physics at Lausanne’s university hospital have been ready to travel to Ramallah to begin tests on Arafat’s body for two weeks, after receiving two letters in early August from the Palestinian Authority asking them to come to the West Bank “as soon as possible.”

However, they have been waiting for the green light from Arafat’s widow, Souha, which came on Thursday. Her agreement was confirmed to Swiss public television station RTS by her Geneva lawyer, who added that she was “the driving force behind the investigation”.

In July, the scientists, who were mandated by the Al Jazeera news network, announced that they had found significant traces of polonium among Arafat’s belongings taken from the Paris military hospital where he died.

French doctors had been unable to determine a cause of death after the 75-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner was airlifted to France for treatment and died there on November 11, 2004.

Polonium-210 decays rapidly, so the research team will act quickly in conducting its tests. The scientific community has been divided over whether anything will be found, but Professor François Bochud, director of the radiation physics institute, told RTS he believes the chances are good.

“I would say that if I were to take a random bone from a cemetery, the probability of finding polonium in it is close to zero. In the case of Yasser Arafat, if I had to give a probability, I would say that with the measures we have taken, that probability would be more than 50 per cent,” Bochud said.

Symptoms of polonium-210 poisoning are similar to those of other forms of radiation poisoning, often involving vomiting, hair loss, low white blood cell count and eventual multiple organ failure.

There are very few recorded cases of polonium poisoning,  the best known being the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

In July, Darcy Christen, Lausanne university hospital spokesman, stressed that clinical symptoms described in Arafat's medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210.

The Swiss research team plans to release the results of its tests on Arafat’s body by the end of the year.

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