'Brain dead' Arafat kept on life support
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was "brain dead" and breathing only thanks to artificial life support systems, a French medical official said after conflicting reports as to whether he was alive or dead.
In strictly technical terms, Arafat was "not dead," the source said 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, spokesman for the French defence forces' medical service, told reporters outside the military hospital outside Paris 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.
Juncker, speaking at an EU summit in Brussels, said that Arafat had died. Israeli media had also reported the Palestinian leader's death.
"Mr Arafat passed away a quarter of an hour ago," Juncker told reporters. His aides later retracted the statement.
Confirmation of brain death, or encephalic death, is a medical precondition to declaring a patient dead, although he or she may still show signs of life maintained artificially on a life support system.
Electroencephalograms (EEG), or brain scans recorded at intervals of four hours, and/or an arteriography showing absence of blood flow in the brain form the criteria enabling doctors to confirm irreversible brain death.
French President Jacques Chirac, who made an half-hour visit to the Percy Military Training Hospital where Arafat had been admitted on October 29, refused to answer journalists' questions as to whether Arafat was dead.
Palestinian officials in Paris and the West Bank spent the day first denying that Arafat was in a coma and then that he had died, but said their leader was in a "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".
"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 suddenly and dramatically deteriorated Wednesday while he was undergoing tests to determine the cause of an illness which prompted his medical evacuation to France.
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 critical but semi-conscious state."
He added: "It's not looking good."
A French medical source said an EEG 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 winning a second term, and, according to one of his aides, said he hoped for a jumpstart to the moribund Middle East peace process.
Arafat's departure on October 29 from his battered West Bank headquarters had 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.
Abbas had been expected to visit Arafat Thursday, but officials in Ramallah said his trip to France was cancelled.
Several dozen people gathered outside the Percy military hospital late Thursday in a tribute to Arafat.
Supporters of Arafat placed portraits of the Palestinian leader at the scene, unfurled Palestinian flags and lit candles in his honour, part of a ritual that first began when Arafat entered the hospital.
Several people said they were ready to spend the whole night outside the hospital, "waiting for news" according Fatima Bena, who had come to pay homage with dates and hot coffee.