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Arafat for France, chaos spectre over Palestinians

Ramallah (West Bank) Oct. 28 (Reuters): Ailing leader Yasser Arafat, the icon of the struggle for a Palestinian state, has agreed to be flown to France tomorrow for medical treatment, Palestinian officials said.

A senior lawmaker from Arafat's Fatah movement, Abbas Zaki, said today Arafat would be flown out early in the morning. France accepted a request for him to be treated in a French hospital and will send a plane to collect him.

A thin and weak-looking Arafat, dressed in pajamas, smiled and joked with medics in the first few seconds of film footage released since his condition worsened drastically yesterday. Laughing, he clasped the hands of those around him.

Aides said Palestinian, Tunisian, Jordanian and Egyptian physicians had advised that Arafat, 75, be taken abroad, moving him from the West Bank compound where he has been penned by Israel forces for over two-and-a-half years. His wife Suha hurried to his bedside for the first time since they were separated by Palestinian-Israeli fighting that erupted after talks foundered in 2000.

The ex-guerrilla, loved by most of his people and reviled by many Israelis, has had stomach pains since last week.

His health took a dramatic turn for the worse yesterday and officials said he had been slipping in and out of consciousness, though today he had also been able to eat, talk and say prayers. Arafat's slide into illness has raised fears of chaos among Palestinians, whose four-year-old uprising for a state has stalled.

The death of a leader Israel and its US ally see as an obstacle to peace could also shuffle the cards in the West Asian conflict as the US heads into a presidential election next Tuesday.

Arafat, short, stubble-bearded and usually seen in his trademark black-and-white Arab headdress, has named no successor in the decade since emerging from exile under interim peace accords.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel would allow Arafat to travel anywhere for medical treatment as a humanitarian gesture. Asked whether it would then permit Arafat to return to the West Bank, Gissin said: 'If the doctors will say that he needs to come back after he receives treatment, Israel will not impose any restrictions on that.'

Israel had said it could not guarantee Arafat's return if he left Ramallah, but Sharon shifted course after speaking by phone with Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie. Should Arafat die, speaker of parliament Rawhi Fattouh would replace him as Palestinian Authority president for a 60-day period during which elections would be held.

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