PARIS – Seriously ill and perhaps fighting for his life, Yasser Arafat (search) was rushed Friday to a military hospital near Paris that specializes in blood disorders. Supporters holding flowers and waving Palestinian flags greeted the Palestinian leader as he was wheeled into the hospital.
It was the first time Arafat has left his Israeli-besieged West Bank headquarters in nearly three years. The 75-year-old Arafat has been sick for the past two weeks and blood tests have revealed he has a low platelet (search) count — a possible symptom of leukemia (search) or other cancers, as well as a number of other maladies.
Arafat arrived on a French military jet at an airfield southwest of Paris and was taken by helicopter to the Hopital d'Instruction des Armees de Percy (search), landing on a rooftop helipad. Paramedics wheeled Arafat, covered with blankets, on a gurney from the roof into the hospital. His wife, Suha, was at his side.
Specialists at the Percy hospital's hematology clinic — where patients with blood disorders are treated — were conducting tests on Arafat, the French Defense Ministry said.
"He's already in his room surrounded by his doctors who have started examining him," said Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to Paris. "He arrived in good health, conscious, smiling — happy to be in France."
Doctors were likely to need at least several days before issuing any kind of diagnosis, she said. Arafat was in stable condition and was undergoing treatment for the low platelet count, Palestinian sources told The Associated Press.
"We have three crucial days ahead of us before we can get clear answers as to whether there is something wrong and if it is serious," said Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's financial adviser.
Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Jamil Tarifi, who was on the plane with Arafat, said his condition was "good, thank God."
"He was normal," Tarifi said.
The Percy hospital, which opened in 1996, is set on a hilltop southwest of Paris, with sweeping views of the capital. Police closed roads leading to the building and set up barricades in front of its main entrance, where a small group of supporters gathered holding flowers and waving Palestinian flags.
"I am waiting for Yasser Arafat, to tell him that we are with him," said Fatima Mera, a 35-year-old French woman of Moroccan origin. "We hope he will leave here and continue the struggle for the Palestinian people."
Arafat's presence in France also stirred controversy. Families of French victims of terrorist attacks in Israel plan to ask judicial authorities to question him, attorney Michel Calvo said. The request was to be presented to France's chief anti-terror judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere.
The pursuit of any criminal probe against Arafat is bound to complicate the French government's diplomatically sensitive decision to provide him with medical treatment.
A contingent of 18 Palestinian officials flew in with Arafat, including Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in Gaza, chief of staff Ramzi Khoury and top aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh.
During Arafat's illness, Palestinian officials have blamed the flu and gallstones. But on Wednesday, he took a turn for the worse — collapsing and briefly losing consciousness — and doctors admitted they didn't know the cause of the low platelet count.
On Thursday, Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, ruled out leukemia. But an Arafat confidant, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, said Friday that "at this point, no possibility has been eliminated." Tibi, an Israeli Arab legislator, said Israeli intelligence officials have speculated that Arafat might be suffering from leukemia and he indicated that Arafat might have some symptoms of the disease.
Platelets are blood components that aid in clotting. A low count can be caused by many medical problems, including bleeding ulcers, colitis, leukemia and lymphoma, liver disease, lupus and chicken pox.
Arafat had a somber departure from his Ramallah headquarters, seen off by a few hundred loyalists gathered on a rain-slicked tarmac. At daybreak, Arafat, wearing a gray fur hat and an olive-colored jacket, was helped into a Jordanian military helicopter.
Looking pale and jaundiced, Arafat tried to smile as loyalists whistled and chanted, "With our spirit and our blood, we will redeem you, Abu Ammar," using his nom de guerre.
"I will be back soon, God willing. I'll see you soon," Arafat told aides during a stopover at a Jordanian military base, according to Ata Kheiry, deputy chief of the Palestinian mission in Jordan. From the base, he boarded the military plane dispatched by President Jacques Chirac to bring him to Paris.
Arafat, once known for his love of travel, had not left the West Bank since a tour of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in November 2001.
Israel long refused to guarantee that if Arafat leaves his Ramallah base he will be allowed to return — a refusal that kept the Palestinian leader in his compound. But Israel, concerned it would be blamed if his condition worsened, lifted the ban on Thursday and promised to let Arafat return.