The discovery of traces of a radioactive agent on a pair of underwear reportedly worn by Yasser Arafat in his final days reignited a cauldron of conspiracy theories Wednesday about the mysterious death of the long-time Palestinian leader.
Arafat's widow, who ordered the tests by a Swiss lab, called for her husband's body to be exhumed, and Arafat's successor gave tentative approval for an autopsy. But experts warned that even after the detection of polonium-210, getting answers on the cause of death will be tough.
Arafat was 75 when he died November 11, 2004, in a French military hospital. He had been airlifted to the facility just weeks earlier with a mysterious illness, after being confined by Israel for three years to his West Bank headquarters.
Advertisement: Story continues below At the time, French doctors said Arafat died of a massive brain haemorrhage. According to French medical records, he had suffered inflammation, jaundice and a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC.
But the records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC, which has numerous causes including infections, colitis and liver disease. Outside experts who reviewed the records on behalf of The Associated Press were also unable to pinpoint the underlying cause.
That debate was reignited after a Swiss lab said Wednesday it had discovered traces of polonium-210 in clothing and other belongings provided by Arafat's wife, Suha. She told the lab that Arafat had used the items in his final days. The development was first reported by the Al-Jazeera satellite channel.
Polonium-210 is best known for causing the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a one-time KGB agent turned critic of the Russian government, in London in 2006. Litvinenko drank tea laced with the substance.
In the West Bank, Arafat's successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, cleared the way for an autopsy.
"The Palestinian Authority was and remains fully prepared to cooperate and to provide all the facilities needed to reveal the real causes that led to the death of the late president," Abbas' office said in a statement.
The top Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories, Mufti Mohammed Hussein, also gave the green light to help allay possible objections in the conservative Muslim society.
With Mrs Arafat and religious authorities in agreement, it was unclear what other steps were needed for the body to be exhumed from his mausoleum-style burial site in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Palestinian officials have long argued that Israel had the means and motive to kill Arafat, whom it accused of encouraging suicide bombings and shootings that claimed hundreds of Israeli lives during the uprising. While confining Arafat to his West Bank headquarters, Israel tightly controlled everything going in and out of the compound.
In Israel, officials dismissed the renewed speculation.
"Making up conspiracy theories based on pretend evidence is so ludicrous that it befits the comedy channel and not a news channel," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
"If there is anything suspicious about his death, then the French doctors would have known and said something."
Denis Gutierrez, a senior French military doctor, said he did not know whether French medics checked Arafat for polonium-210 while he was at France's Percy military hospital. And Gutierrez was unaware of any mention of poisoning in the 558-page classified report on Arafat's death.
But Gutierrez said nothing was sent from the hospital to the Swiss lab, raising questions about the belongings that were tested. "Samples taken in the hospital remain in the hospital," he said.
Experts said Arafat's remains would have to be tested to know more.
"You don't know much about the provenance of the clothing and whether it had been tampered with later on. You'd want to test the body," said Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds in England.