Arafat heads to Paris for treatment

Palestinian leader disoriented

blood tests show low platelet count

October 29, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat left the West Bank early today in a Jordanian military helicopter on his way to Paris to be hospitalized for ailments that have left the Palestinian leader disoriented and unable to stand.

Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, said last night that blood tests indicated a low platelet count, and that more sophisticated diagnostic tests could only be carried out at a well-equipped medical center. Arafat's illness seemed to begin as stomach flu but turned more serious Wednesday.

The reason for the low platelet count was not yet known, Kurdi said, though cancer, ulcers and viruses are possibilities. Platelets are necessary for normal blood clotting.

Kurdi, Arafat's physician for 25 years, said his patient was not in immediate danger. "His condition is good, his spirits are high," he said.

Physicians from Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia examined Arafat yesterday and concluded that the 75-year-old could not be properly treated in the badly damaged presidential compound here, where he has remained for nearly three years with Israeli soldiers outside.

Questions of succession

His illness raised questions about possible successors, a topic that Arafat has avoided and that has long been a source of anxiety for Palestinians as well as Israelis.

Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said no replacement would be appointed, but that Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned last year as prime minister, would act informally as head of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas has criticized Arafat for his refusal to share power.

Israeli officials cautiously predicted that Arafat's illness could rejuvenate the peace process.

"I believe that this will make it possible for a different Palestinian leadership to grow up free from the dark shadow of Yasser Arafat, who prevented any possibility of dialogue," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told state radio.

But Palestinian society is in chaos, and it seems unlikely that any immediate successor would have Arafat's authority.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, warned that Arafat's death would lead to unrest. "There will be some disorder," she said. "Some people are already vying for power."

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz held a series of meetings yesterday to prepare the army for possible violence in the event of Arafat's death.

Return guaranteed

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia conferred by phone yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who told him that Arafat could return to Ramallah once he recovers.

The trip to Paris would be Arafat's first outside the presidential compound since December 2001, and he at first was reluctant to leave. He agreed after Israeli authorities gave assurances through the U.S. Embassy that he would be allowed to return. In the past, Israeli officials had said that Arafat was free to leave but they would not guarantee his return.

Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, confirmed that Israel had given assurances to the Palestinians.

"We have been told that Arafat will be let back in," Patin said. "Our only concern is that Arafat receives proper medical care. That is being done. We would want that for anybody, even him."

Rudeineh said a Jordanian helicopter would fly Arafat and Kurdi to Amman, Jordan, early today and that a jet chartered by the French government would take them to Paris.

Palestinian officials have consistently minimized the seriousness of Arafat's illness while acting with obvious urgency. The Palestinian Authority released two photographs and a brief video yesterday that showed a smiling Arafat sitting with his doctors. He was dressed in blue pajamas and a knit cap rather than his trademark green military jacket and checked headdress.

Arafat participated in pre-dawn prayers and ate corn flakes, but was being administered nutrients through an intravenous line, Ashrawi said.

"Doctors said that he needs to keep trying to eat," the Palestinian lawmaker told reporters assembled outside the compound. "I was told by close aides that Mr. Arafat is better. We are less concerned today than we were yesterday. But I think that he needs to get out of these unhealthy conditions.

"I am concerned about him," Ashrawi said. "I hope that his survival instincts take over."

Aides said Arafat slept much of yesterday and that he had appeared confused at times when meeting people. Doctors have set up a small but well-appointed clinic inside his compound, which was largely destroyed by the Israeli army two years ago.

`He's improving'

Rudeineh said Arafat's condition was serious but stable, and that "he needs to be resting."

A cousin, Mousa Arafat, said after visiting the Palestinian leader that "he's improving and is able to eat today."

Dr. Ghazi Hanania, a dentist and close friend, emerged from Arafat's compound, saying: "He's walking, he's eating, he's praying."

The scene at the compound resembled a death watch as hundreds of reporters packed a side street and swarmed around the black BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes ferrying Palestinian officials in and out. The visitors included Arafat's wife, Suha, who lives in Paris and had not seen her husband in four years, and arrived at the compound last night.

A handful of Palestinians came to offer Arafat support, and the Palestinian news media, taking its cue from Palestinian officials, minimized his illness.

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