Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was Thursday "brain dead" and breathing only thanks to artificial life support systems, a French medical source said after conflicting reports as to whether he was alive or dead.
Thursday brought conflicting reports about Arafat's condition
In strictly technical terms, Arafat was "not dead," the source told AFP on condition of confidentiality, adding that the 75-year-old leader had slipped into an irreversible coma and could only be maintained in his vegetative state through ventilation machines.
The information followed a short statement by a senior French military official who said "Mr Arafat is not dead."
The Palestinian Authority president's condition was "complex," General Christian Estripeau, the spokesman for the French defence forces' medical service, told reporters outside the Paris military hospital which had been tending to Arafat.
"The patient's condition needs appropriate treatment which required his being transferred to a unit suited to his pathology on the afternoon of Wednesday November 3," he said. He refused to take questions, but said his statement had been prepared according to the wishes of Arafat's wife, Suha.
Earlier Thursday, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker and Israeli media had reported that Arafat had died.
"Mr. Arafat passed away a quarter of an hour ago," Juncker told reporters in Brussels at 1640 GMT. His aides later retracted the statement.
French President Jacques Chirac, who made an half-hour visit to the Percy Military Training Hospital where Arafat had been admitted before going to Brussels for an meeting with Juncker and other EU
leaders, refused to answer journalists' questions as to whether Arafat was dead.
Palestinian officials in Paris and the West Bank spent the day denying the reports of Arafat's demise, but said their leader was in "critical condition" in the hospital's intensive care unit.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei told reporters at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah that Arafat "is not in a coma."
"There have been examinations and results are positive," he said without elaborating.
"It is wrong. If the president was dead, the whole world would know," Palestinian Communications Minister Azzam al-Ahmed told AFP. "But it is true that he is a very critical condition," he added.
French medical sources said Arafat's health had suddenly and dramatically deteriorated Wednesday while he was undergoing tests to determine the cause of an illness which prompted his medical evacuation to Paris last Friday.
A diagnosis of the illness has not been revealed.
Palestinian officials said weekend tests had ruled out leukaemia or other cancers that might have explained the symptoms suffered by Arafat, who had low levels of blood platelets needed for blood clotting.
In Washington, newly re-elected US President George W. Bush said "God bless his soul" when told by a reporter of the unconfirmed reports that the Palestinian leader had died.
A US State Department official later said: "The latest we have from the French is that he is in a criticial but semi-conscious state."
No brain activity
A French medical source said an electroencephalogram (EEG), a type of brain scan, was carried out on Arafat Thursday -- itself "a sign of extreme gravity" -- and that there was no reading of any cerebral activity.
France has long supported Arafat in his 40-year struggle for Palestinian statehood, and Chirac was said to have made the decision personally to provide hospital treatment for him.
Arafat was said to have been well enough Wednesday to welcome Bush's re-election and, according to one of his aides, said he hoped for a jumpstart to the moribund Middle East peace process.
Arafat's departure from his battered West Bank headquarters have sparked intense speculation about his eventual successor, but officials insist there is no power vacuum.
In Arafat's absence, Qorei has taken over as acting head of the Palestinian Authority, while former premier Mahmud Abbas is temporarily heading the PLO and Arafat's dominant Fatah faction.