Swiss scientists say they have found evidence that Yasser Arafat may have been poisoned with polonium after traces were found in soil and bone samples taken from the Palestinian leader’s grave as well as clothing, but they cannot be absolutely sure.
The researchers from Lausanne university hospital’s Institute for Radiation Physics said on Thursday their results "reasonably support" the theory that Arafat was poisoned with the radioactive substance.
Arafat died aged 75 under mysterious circumstances at a French military hospital in 2004.
The experts found concentrations of polonium 18 times higher than normal in samples, a “significant” result that surprised them. Lead levels were also considered suspicious.
"You don't accidentally or voluntarily absorb a source of polonium – it's not something that appears in the environment like that," said Patrice Mangin, director of the hospital's forensics centre. He said he could not say unequivocally what killed Arafat – the biological samples obtained just last year were far too degraded.
The tests were conducted eight years after Arafat's death, so there may have been problems with chemical degradation, while there were question marks about the chain of custody for some samples or items analysed.
"We were unable to verify if the samples were stored under the conditions we would have liked them to be,” pointed out Mangin.
The scientists also noted their tests faced several limitations. They had to perform their analyses on very small specimens – such as a single hair shaft or traces of blood and urine.
"Our results reasonably support the poisoning theory," added Francois Bochud, director of the institute, though he was careful to emphasise that lingering questions will require further investigation to answer.
"Can we exclude polonium as cause of death? The response is clearly 'no'," he said. "Was polonium the cause of the death for certain? The answer is no."
The scientists said Arafat had symptoms commonly linked to radiation poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and liver and kidney failure, but not two other classic symptoms, hair loss and a weaker immune system.
However, there have been so few cases of known polonium poisoning that little is known about its exact symptoms.
In July last year, the Swiss lab, mandated by the Al Jazeera news network, announced it had found “surprisingly high” levels of polonium in Arafat’s belongings, which were given to his widow, Suha, by the military hospital in Paris where he died.
Around 60 samples were then taken from the remains of the late Palestinian leader after he was exhumed from Ramallah in November last year for an investigation into whether he was poisoned by polonium.
The samples were divided between Swiss, Russian and French investigators carrying out probes at the request of Arafat’s wife. The Russian team submitted its report last Sunday while the French have yet to hand over their results.
Israel denied earlier on Thursday any role in Arafat’s death. "We never made a decision to harm him physically," Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, who in 2004 served as foreign minister and as a member of Israel's security cabinet, told Israel Radio.
"In my opinion, this is a tempest in a tea cup. But even if it was [poisoning], it certainly was not Israel. Maybe someone else inside had thoughts or an interest to do it."
In the occupied West Bank, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization issued a new call for an international investigation into Arafat's death.
"This matter warrants the formation of an international judicial body to look into it and hold accountable the perpetrator," Wasel Abu Yousef told the Reuters news agency.
"The one who had an interest in his death was the occupation [Israel]," he added.
The head of a Palestinian committee set up to probe Arafat's death said on Friday that it would keep on investigating to confirm “all the details and all elements of the case”.
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