PARIS – French prosecutors opened a murder inquiry into the death of Yasser Arafat on Tuesday, judicial officials told a French new agency, after his widow and a TV investigation raised new questions about whether the Palestinian leader was poisoned.
There have long been rumors in the Arab world that Arafat was poisoned, and a Swiss lab's recent finding of elevated levels of a rare and highly lethal radioactive substance on Arafat's clothing has fed those claims.
However, the Institute of Radiation Physics said its findings were inconclusive and that only exhuming Arafat's remains could bring possible clarity. Palestinian officials have waffled on the matter -- initially approving the exhumation and then saying the matter needed more study -- only further fueling suspicions.
Still, since Arafat's death, several senior Palestinian officials have alleged that Israel poisoned the Palestinian leader, a charge Israel vehemently denied.
Testing Arafat's bones for polonium-210 -- the substance found on his clothes -- could offer the last chance to get to the bottom of Palestinian claims that their leader was poisoned, though some experts say it may already be too late for conclusive answers.
Scientists caution that polonium decays quickly and that an autopsy needs to be done right away.
Arafat died in a French military hospital in 2004 of what doctors have said was a massive stroke, but the Swiss lab's tests have renewed interest in his death. The findings were first broadcast by Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, which approached the lab on behalf of Arafat's widow, Suha. She provided the lab with his clothing and other belongings.
When the results were released, Suha Arafat filed a complaint in French court asking for a murder investigation. The two judicial officials -- who would only speak on condition of anonymity because of office rules -- said a judge will be appointed to run the investigation shortly.
The complaint is open and does not name a responsible party, as is a common practice in French courts.