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France opens murder investigation into Arafat's death

French prosecutors have opened an inquiry into the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The probe will investigate claims that Arafat may have been murdered by being poisoned with polonium.

Arafat's widow, Suha Arafat, and daughter Zawra lodged a complaint on July 31 in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, calling for an investigation into death of the late Palestinian Liberation Organization head. Arafat died near Paris in 2004 at the age of 75.

The decision by French prosecutors was praised by the Palestinian Authority, the news agency AFP reported. "We welcome this decision and [Palestinian] president Mahmud Abbas has officially asked French President Francois Hollande to help us to investigate the circumstances of the martyrdom of late President Arafat," senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat told the agency.

Last Friday, a radiology lab at Lausanne University Hospital Center in Switzerland said it had received the go-ahead to test Arafat's remains for poisoning by polonium.

Polonium is an extremely rare, highly toxic substance. It was used to kill former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 shortly after drinking tea laced with the poison. It is rarely found outside military and scientific circles.

Longstanding allegations that Arafat, a 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was poisoned were resurrected last month after the news outlet Al-Jazeera broadcast an investigation in which experts said they had found high levels of polonium on Arafat's personal belongings.

Previous investigations inconclusive

Before his death, Arafat had been admitted to a military hospital after suffering from nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and thrombocytopenia - an abnormally low amount of platelets in the blood. Although doctors conducted a number of tests, they were unable to determine an exact cause of death. No autopsy was conducted after Arafat slipped into a coma and died on November 11, 2004.

Palestinian soccer fans sit under a large banner showing the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, during a World Cup qualifier game against Thailand in West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, July 28, 2011.

Arafat led the charge for Palestinian statehood for 40 years

Upon Arafat's death, Palestinian officials claimed he had been poisoned by Israeli Mossad agents, but an inconclusive 2005 Palestinian investigation ruled that out, in addition to cancer and AIDS.

Israel has denied allegations that it poisoned Arafat, claiming instead that Suha Arafat and the Palestinian government had covered up the real reason for Arafat's death.

Before dying, Arafat had led the charge for Palestinian statehood for almost 40 years. The Palestinian Territories comprise the West Bank and the Gaza Strip regions within Israel. Its status as an independent nation has long been disputed.

bm / rc (AFP, dpa, Reuters)