Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrives in Paris for medical treatment

Thursday, October 28th 2004, 8:15 pm
By: News On 6

CLAMART, France (AP) _ Yasser Arafat, suffering from a mystery illness, was flown to France on Friday and was rushed to a military hospital where doctors, including specialists in blood disorders, immediately began examining the Palestinian leader.

The health crisis has brought the 75-year-old Arafat out of his sandbagged headquarters compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah for the first time in nearly three years. He has been sick for the past two weeks and blood tests have revealed he has a low platelet count _ a possible symptom of leukemia or other cancers or 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 nearby Hopital d'Instruction des Armees de Percy, landing on a rooftop helipad.

Paramedics wheeled Arafat, lying covered with blankets, in a gurney from the roof into the hospital. His wife, Suha, was at his side.

Specialists at the Percy hospital's state-of-the-art hematology clinic _ where patients ailing from 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.

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.

A contingent of around 18 Palestinian officials flew in with Arafat, including Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in Gaza, and Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's personal financial adviser, as well as 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 who rushed in admitted they didn't know what was 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 chickenpox.

Hours earlier, 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.

He looked pale and jaundiced, but 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 pinned down in his compound. But Israel, concerned it would be blamed if his health condition worsened, lifted the ban on Thursday and promised to allow Arafat to come back from treatment

Palestinians were beginning to consider how their world would look without Arafat, the only leader they have known for nearly four decades.

The last photos taken of Arafat in the West Bank underscored his transformation from leader to patient. They showed him in a wheelchair, holding his doctors' hands and wearing a blue jogging suit and a stocking cap, instead of his trademark military fatigues and checkered headscarf.

Palestinians watched their leader's departure with mixed feelings.

Many have been frustrated by his corruption-tainted rule and failure to resolve four years of fighting with Israel. However, he has been a unifying force and many feared his departure could unleash a possibly bloody power struggle.

``He is the safety valve for everything here,'' said Imad Samara, 38, a teacher in Gaza City. ``He is the father of all the Palestinians.''

Senior Palestinian officials were to hold a first round of meetings on the situation Saturday. Arafat has persistently refused to appoint a successor and did not name a stand-in during his absence.

``We admit that things will not be easy,'' said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former Cabinet minister and Arafat confidant, ``but we will try our best for full coordination ... and we will consult with president Arafat on the important issues.''

The militant group Hamas, a longtime rival of Arafat, said Friday it was setting aside its differences, wishing the Palestinian leader a ``quick recovery'' and calling for a united Palestinian leadership to work toward general elections.

The Israeli and U.S. governments have refused to deal with Arafat, saying he was fomenting terror and is not a partner for peace.

``Whatever will be, we are seeing Arafat being sidelined,'' said Yossi Beilin, a dovish Israeli politician and former peace negotiator.