By Yves Clarisse
PARIS (Reuters) - A French court has opened a murder inquiry into the death eight years ago of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, prosecutors said on Tuesday, following claims by his widow that he may have been poisoned.
Arafat died in a Paris military hospital in November 2004, a month after being flown, seriously ill, from his battered headquarters in Ramallah, where he had been effectively confined by Israel for more than 2-1/2 years.
Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, welcomed the inquiry. However, he said the Arab League would also call at the United Nations for an international investigation into the death of Arafat, who led Palestinians' campaign to create a state through years of war and peace.
Allegations of foul play have long surrounded Arafat's demise after French doctors who treated him in his final days said they could not establish the cause of death.
Many Arabs suspect Israel of being behind his decline, and the case returned to the headlines last month when a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of the radioactive element polonium-210 on Arafat's clothing supplied by his widow, Suha.
That substance was found to have killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Suha asked a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre to open a murder investigation following the revelations publicized by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite TV channel.
However, the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne said that symptoms described in Arafat's medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210 and conclusions could not be drawn as to whether he had been poisoned.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said he hoped the French inquiry would reveal more on the circumstances of Arafat's death.
"This does not pertain to us. The complaint lodged by Suha Arafat with the French police does not address Israel or anyone in particular," he said.
"If the French justice system has decided to open an investigation, we hope that it will shed light on this matter."
Erekat said a Palestinian committee investigating the death would continue its work. "We welcome the (French) decision," he said.
"We believe our political and medical team is working in parallel (with the French inquiry). At the same time the Arab League has now formed a committee which will call for an international investigation through the U.N. Security Council."
CONFINED TO COMPOUND
An investigating magistrate, yet to be named, will lead the French inquiry into possible premeditated murder, a legal source said in Paris.
Arafat was confined by Israel to his compound after a Palestinian uprising and was already in poor health when he collapsed in October 2004. At first Arafat's aides said he was suffering from influenza but, looking weak and thin - and telling aides "God willing, I will be back" - he was flown to France where he slipped into a coma and died on November 11.
A lawyer for Suha Arafat told Europe 1 radio that the French court was correct in recognizing its jurisdiction to investigate the case, since Arafat died in France.
"The tests done in Switzerland showed that Mr. Arafat, in all likelihood, died through poisoning," the lawyer, Marc Bonnant, said. "This hypothesis must be proved, and if that's the case, then it's premeditated murder."
Suha Arafat has said her suspicions were raised when the hospital where her husband was treated acknowledged that it had destroyed his blood and urine samples.
The Palestinian Authority plans to exhume Arafat's body from a limestone mausoleum in Ramallah for an autopsy and Tunisia has called for a ministerial meeting of the Arab League to discuss his death.
(Additional reporting by Nicolas Bertin in Paris, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Noah Browning in Ramallah; Writing by Alexandria Sage and David Stamp; Editing by Louise Ireland and Robin Pomeroy)