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Investigators start to open Arafat's grave

After years of speculation over what caused Yasser Arafat's death, an investigative committee has begun working to exhume the former Palestinian leader's body. Officials plan to test his remains for poison.

Honour guards stand at the mausoleum of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 29, 2009. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Yasser Arafat Mausoleum

Workers in the West Bank city of Ramallah undertook the long-process of opening the Yasser Arafat's mausoleum (pictured) on Tuesday. They expect the exhumation to last for roughly two weeks because they intend to carry out the work by hand in order to avoid damaging the site, according to anonymous sources speaking to the news agencies dpa and AFP.

"It starts with the removal of stone and concrete and cutting the iron (framework) until they reach the soil that covers the body, which will not be removed until the arrival of the French prosecutors, Swiss experts and Russian investigators," the source affiliated with the investigative committee told dpa.

Investigators want to determine whether the late Arafat was poisoned with the radioactive substance polonium. A delegation of French, Swiss and Russian experts are scheduled to arrive on November 26 to take and analyze samples.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Arafat was known for support of violent resistance, as well as later peace efforts

On Monday, the unit working on site installed tarpaulins to protect the operation from the public view.

"Because of Arafat's position and his status, no-one will be allowed, under any circumstances, to photograph his body while the samples are taken," an anonymous source - who claimed to be close to the Arafat family - told AFP.

Confined to compound

Yasser Arafat, the former President of the Palestinian National Authority and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, died on November 11, 2004 in a military hospital near Paris, France. After having fallen seriously ill, he had been flown from his compound in Ramallah, where he had been confined by Israel for several years. French doctors never determined the exact cause of death.

French prosecutors launched an inquiry in late August after receiving evidence that poison could have caused the late leader's death. The previous month, experts at the Swiss Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne found traces of the radioactive substance polonium on Arafat's personal effects. Arafat's widow demanded his body be exhumed for tests.

In 2006, polonium caused the death of a former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London.

Yasser Arafat was born in Egypt in 1929. He gained international attention as the controversial leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, known first for his support of violent resistance and then later for peaceful negotiation efforts. In 1994, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin "for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East."

kms/rc (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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