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Concern Over Arafat's Condition

Yasser Arafat lapsed into a coma in a French hospital, a senior Palestinian official said Thursday, a day after the Palestinian leader was rushed to intensive care following a sharp deterioration in his health.

Doctors at the hospital treating the Palestinian leader said he was alive despite reports that he had died.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters at a summit of European leaders in Belgium that Arafat had died, but he later retracted the statement.

"It was a misunderstanding," government spokesman Lucien Michels said.

After Juncker's initial statement, a spokesman for the military hospital where Arafat was rushed Friday said he was still alive.

"Mr. Arafat is not dead," said Christian Estripeau, head of communications for French military health services. "The clinical situation of the first few days following admission has become more complex."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said there had been no change in Arafat's condition. Palestinian officials said Arafat was in a coma in the intensive care unit.

Arafat's chief of staff, Ramzi Khoury, called an Associated Press reporter from Paris and told him: "I am standing next to the president's bed, he is in grave condition."

Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, told Israel TV's Channel Two that Arafat was still alive.

There also were media reports that Arafat had died or was brain dead. The Israeli network reported that Arafat was brain dead but remained on life support.

Meanwhile, anxious Palestinian leaders held an emergency meeting in the West Bank on Thursday. Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said top officials were in touch with Arafat's hospital every 30 minutes to check on his condition.

"The Palestinian leadership is in constant meeting to follow up on the president's health," Shaath said from Ramallah, where leaders of the PLO and Arafat's Fatah movement were meeting.

French President Jacques Chirac went to the hospital and saw Arafat and his wife, "to whom he expressed his best wishes," Chirac's office said. The president also met members of the Palestinian Authority and doctors "who are doing everything possible for the health of the president," Chirac's office said.

The visit lasted about 30 minutes. Chirac did not speak to reporters.

French television station LCI quoted an anonymous French medical official as saying Arafat was in an "irreversible coma" and "intubated" — a process that usually involves threading a tube down the windpipe to the lungs. The tube is often connected to a life support machine to help the patient breathe.

The Palestinian official would not say when Arafat lost consciousness. Two Arafat aides in Paris denied he was in a coma, but the senior Palestinian with close access to the medical team insisted Arafat was comatose.

A prolonged Arafat incapacitation — or death — could have profound impact on the Middle East. There are fears of unrest among Palestinian factions, which Arafat, viewed as a national symbol by even some who opposed him, was largely able to prevent. Furthermore, chaos in the West Bank and Gaza could make any cooperation with Israel even more difficult.

On the other hand, Israel and the United States have in recent years shunned Arafat as a terrorist and an obstacle to peace, and his replacement by a new leadership could open the door to renewed peace talks. Such a scenario could affect Israel's current plans to pull soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in a unilateral move not coordinated with the Palestinians.

The 75-year-old leader was rushed to the Percy Military Training Hospital outside Paris for emergency treatment Friday. Since then, his condition has largely remained a mystery, with Palestinians issuing conflicting reports.

According to CBS News Correspondent Larry Miller, Israeli intelligence is reported to have information that Arafat has some type of organ failure.

There is concern in Israel about the potential for chaos in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if Arafat dies or is incapacitated to the point where he is unable to perform politically. The Israeli army has a plan, called "new leaf," to deal with the fallout from Arafat's death, including possible Palestinian riots.

The Israeli military had not yet moved forces to anticipated problem areas, but commanders were told to be on standby.

Israeli security officials were meeting Thursday to study the repercussions in the Middle East should Arafat die, Israeli officials said. Top officials, including Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Army Chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, were to focus their weekly meeting on reports that Arafat's health took a sudden turn for the worse, the officials said.

Among Israel's plans are ways to prevent Arafat from being buried in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would not permit Arafat to be buried in the city, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital.

Cabinet official Saeb Erekat called reports Arafat had lapsed into a coma "baseless." Erekat told The Associated Press in Ramallah that Arafat's wife, Suha, told him Arafat's condition was "stable but difficult."

Shaath said, "He is not getting better but not getting worse either. He is being examined. He is not in a coma. There is no explanation for what has happened."

Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's financial adviser, also denied that Arafat was in a coma.

"Last night, several blood and bone marrow tests were done that required the president to be in an isolation unit for several hours, and there is no truth to any of the reports that he is in a coma," Rashid said in Paris.

Arafat, who fell ill three weeks ago, was flown to France after passing out briefly at his West Bank headquarters. He was initially described as having a bad flu, with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea.

Palestinian officials insist publicly that leukemia and other forms of cancer, as well as any type of poisoning, have been ruled out.

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