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ARKIB : 01/11/2004

Arafat checked for virus, aides voice optimism

CLAMART (France) Oct 31 - Yasser Arafat underwent tests for viral infection and other ailments on Sunday after initial checks ruled out leukaemia and any life-threatening illness, aides to the Palestinian leader said.

Arafat, 75, spent his second night in a French army hospital on Saturday after being flown from his shell-battered compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah with severe stomach pains and a low blood platelet count.

``The latest tests have found that President Arafat does not suffer from any life-threatening illness and what he has is curable,'' senior Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters.

``Hopefully soon he will be back with his people,'' another Palestinian official, Mohammad Rachid, told reporters, adding that Arafat got out of bed on Sunday morning, joked with medics and read the Koran for the first time in 10 days.

French doctors and authorities offered no comment, having insisted they would speak publicly once analyses were complete, something that could take until as late as Wednesday. Medical sources said nothing could be ruled in or out until then.

Palestinians have delegated his powers to two deputies temporarily - Mahmoud Abbas, his number two in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie.

One Arafat aide in France said doctors were now checking the possibility of viral infection or poisoning.

The aide, who declined to be identified, was pressed on what he meant by poisoning and said only that nothing was to be ruled out, including any harm that might have been caused by the use of wrong medicine.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier defended French President Jacques Chirac's decision to bring Arafat to France.

``Yasser Arafat is the legitimate chief of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people. It is normal that we welcome him and I don't think there is any more to say about it,'' Barnier told French state radio station France Inter.

The Palestinian president, effectively confined to his offices by Israeli forces for the past 2-1/2 years, agreed to fly to France only after Israel promised to allow him to return to the West Bank after treatment.

Barnier urged an end to the restrictions on Arafat's freedom and renewed peace efforts after the US presidential election on Tuesday.

Washington under George W. Bush has tried to shut Arafat out of the picture in the Middle East. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said, however, that he is pleased that Arafat is being treated at a sophisticated medical facility.

The PLO's executive committee met without Arafat on Saturday for the first time in decades, determined to show it was business as usual. The Palestinian legislative council was set to meet on Sunday.

Mohammad Rachid said Arafat was sleeping better, eating moderately and keeping his food down.

He had been vomiting and sliding in and out of consciousness before leaving Ramallah, Palestinian officials said last week. His doctors in the West Bank had been unable to rule out leukaemia or other blood disorders at the time.

Leila Shahid, the permanent Palestinian envoy to Paris, was expected to pay another visit to Arafat's bedside at Percy Army Teaching Hospital in the southern Paris suburb of Clamart, which has a reputation for treating blood disorders.

Arafat was accompanied to the hospital by his wife Suha. He is due to be joined on Wednesday by his daughter Zahwa, 9, who spoke to him by telephone from Tunis on Saturday. - Reuters

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