PARIS – Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat apparently was fighting for his life in a French military hospital Thursday amid conflicting reports about his condition.
“Mr. Arafat is not dead,” said Gen. Christian Estripeau, a spokesman for the Percy Military Training Hospital, reading from a statement issued in consultation with Arafat’s wife, Suha.
But his condition was serious: Estripeau said Arafat had been transferred to a specialized hospital unit after his condition “has grown more complicated.” A senior Palestinian official in Ramallah, West Bank, told Knight Ridder that Arafat’s condition was “critical,” and a State Department official in Washington said the French government had told U.S. diplomats that Arafat was in a “critical but semi-conscious state.”
Earlier news reports had described the 75-year-old Palestinian leader as dead or brain dead, and one quoted a Palestinian official as saying Arafat was in a coma, an assertion Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia denied in Ramallah.
“He’s not in a coma. He’s neither in good condition nor in bad condition,” Qureia said.
Although Arafat has been scorned in recent years by the United States and Israel and criticized by fellow Palestinians, his death would have major repercussions in the Palestinian territories, where more radical factions are competing with his Palestinian Authority for power. Arafat is a popular figure, considered the father of the Palestinian self-determination movement.
Palestinian officials met throughout the day at Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, where Arafat had been confined for the last 21/2 years by Israeli forces, until Israel agreed to allow him to go to Paris for treatment last week.
At one of those meetings, the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed to send Qureia to Gaza, apparently to reassure leaders there.
But few Palestinians had gathered to await news outside Arafat’s headquarters, where the flags were already at half-staff to mourn the death of the president of the United Arab Emirates. “People are confused. They really don’t know what to do,” said Saad al Khalili, 29, who said he closed his toy store after hearing that Arafat had died on the Al Jazeera television channel.
French President Jacques Chirac saw Arafat during a 30-minute visit to the hospital, his office said in a statement. He later declined to comment to reporters about Arafat’s condition.
The flurry of death reports also confounded world leaders.
The prime minister of Luxembourg announced that Arafat had died, but later retracted the statement. During his first post-election news conference, President Bush was surprised when a reporter asked about the report that Arafat had died. “Really?” the president said. Then he added: “My first reaction is God bless his soul. My second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that is at peace with Israel.”