The remains of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were exhumed from his grave today so international forensic experts could search for additional clues to his death.
Just hours after being removed, the corpse was reburied with full military honours.
The exhumation began early today and the remains were taken from the massive mausoleum in the West Bank city of Ramallah where Arafat was buried and moved to a nearby mosque so Palestinian doctors could take samples from his bones.
Since his death in 2004 many in the Arab world believe Arafat, the face of the Palestinian independence struggle for four decades, was killed by Israel. Israel, which saw Arafat as an obstacle to peace, vehemently denies the charges.
Under Islam, only Muslims can handle a Muslim’s remains.
The samples will be handed over to French, Swiss and Russian experts who have flown in for the exhumation and who will examine them in their home countries, the officials said.
Tawfik Tirawi, who heads the Palestinian team investigating the death said Arafat will be reburied the same day with military honors, but the ceremony will be closed to the public, Tirawi told a news conference.
The whole process is set to take about 10 hours and before the exhumation, the head of the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat’s death, Tawfik al-Tirawi, said no journalists would be allowed to observe the exhumation.
He did not specify when results would be announced but said the probe could take months.
Earlier this month, workers began prying open the concrete-encased tomb in Arafat’s former government headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government in the West Bank, had hesitated before agreeing to exhume the remains, in part because of cultural and religious sensitivities.
Since mid-November, the gravesite has been surrounded with a blue tarpaulin and roads leading to the Arafat mausoleum were closed. Arafat is still widely revered in the Palestinian territories, and Palestinian officials said they don’t want the process observed by media and others.
The new investigation into Arafat’s death was sparked earlier this year by the discovery of a lethal radioactive substance, polonium, on clothing said to be his.
The clothes were provided by Arafat’s widow, Suha, and given to the lab by the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera.
Arafat, who led the Palestine Liberation Organisation for 35 years and became the first president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, died in November 2004 in a French military hospital, a month after suddenly falling ill.
While the immediate cause of death was a stroke, the underlying source of an illness he suffered in his final weeks has never been clear, leading to persistent speculation in the Arab world that Israel poisoned him. Israel has denied such allegations.
Since his death there have been persistent conspiracy theories that he had cancer, AIDS or was poisoned.
His widow, Suha, objected to a post-mortem at the time, but asked the Palestinian Authority to permit the exhumation ‘to reveal the truth.’
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Palestinians were free to take all the samples they wanted.
‘We have nothing to fear,’ he said.
‘All the accusations against Israel are completely ridiculous and not based on the slightest bit of evidence.’
The exhumation might not resolve the mystery.
Polonium-210 decomposes rapidly, and some experts say it is not clear whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing.
The former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died of exposure to polonium-210 in London in 2006. The UK authorities have accused Andrei Lugovoi, an ex-KGB officer, of poisoning his tea.