Workers have sealed off the tomb of former Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in preparation for the possible exhumation of his body.
"Since this morning, Arafat's mausoleum was closed as a preliminary step in the investigation of his death," Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the investigative committee on Arafat's death, told AFP on Tuesday.
After falling ill at the age of seventy-five, Arafat was flown by helicopter out of his headquarters in October 2004 and transferred to a French military hospital where he died about two weeks later of unannounced causes.
Due to the indeterminate cause of death, the Arab world quickly resorted to placing the blame on Israel, alleging he had been poisoned.
Arafat’s death records show, however, that he had died of a stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an underlying infection. The hospital found no traces of poisons.
The preparatory work, involving the removal of layers of stone and concrete, is being done manually and is expected to take several weeks.
“It needs to be done meticulously and privately, out of respect for the late president and our religious traditions,” an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
French prosecutors opened a murder inquiry in August after Al-Jazeera television broadcast an investigation in which Swiss experts said they had found high levels of radioactive polonium on Arafat's personal effects.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said on Sunday that Russia would also be helping the investigation although he did not specify in what role.
"We are currently in contact with French investigators, experts in Switzerland and the Russian government to open the tomb of Yasser Arafat," Abbas said in a speech in Ramallah to mark the eighth anniversary of his predecessor's death.
Polonium is a highly toxic substance rarely found outside military and scientific circles.
The French murder inquiry was opened in late August at the request of Arafat's widow Suha, who had refused to give her permission for an autopsy at the time of his death.