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Arafat on life support, U.S. officials say

Negotiations under way on Palestinian leader's burial

Yasser Arafat pictured at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah in September.
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Hospital denies Arafat is dead after media reports of his death surface.

A spokeswoman says doctors have ruled out leukemia.
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Yasser Arafat

PARIS, France (CNN) -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained in a coma Friday at a French military hospital on the outskirts of Paris, amid various reports over the gravity of his prognosis.

Two U.S. administration officials told CNN that Arafat, 75, was being kept alive by machines while French, Israeli and Egyptian officials negotiate with his family and aides over where he should be buried.

Arafat's family always has wanted him to be buried in Jerusalem, but Israeli officials have said they would not allow that. There is some discussion about Arafat being buried in Egypt.

Leila Shahid, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Paris, confirmed that Arafat was in a coma but said it was "reversible" and he could come out of it. Speaking in an interview on French Radio Friday morning, Shahid denied reports that the Palestinian leader was brain dead.

Shahid said the coma was initially induced by doctors on Wednesday afternoon in order to perform a biopsy after his condition took a turn for the worse.

The White House and other departments are in communication with French officials about Arafat's status and are receiving constant updates, according to the officials -- one of them very senior -- who are familiar with talks with the Palestinian Authority president's wife and his inner circle.

A senior Israeli official would neither confirm nor deny reports that the negotiations are taking place over where to bury Arafat.

"This is a sensitive issue and we will not discuss it until an official statement is released," the official said.

While "contacts had been made" with the Israeli government regarding where Arafat would be buried, the official said no formal request had been made by Arafat's family.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has categorically ruled out the possibility of Arafat's burial in Jerusalem.

The two U.S. officials say that since Muslim custom requires burial within 24 hours of death, no one will declare Arafat dead until they figure out where to bury him. They said Arafat will not be taken off life support or declared officially deceased by his family until the negotiations are complete, and they hope to have those talks wrapped up within 24 to 48 hours.

"This is a very sensitive matter," one official said, adding, "We are running out of time."

Thursday afternoon, French President Jacques Chirac was allowed to briefly visit Arafat's room. He also spent about a half hour with Suha Arafat, the Palestinian leader's wife.

Shahid, who was in the room during Chirac's visit, told French radio that when the French leader held Arafat's hand, he opened his eyes and smiled although it was not clear if he recognized Chirac.

With the news of Arafat's health deteriorating, the Israeli military has been placed on high alert, and Palestinian security forces are reviewing their plans to keep Palestinian territories calm in the event of Arafat's death.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei and former premier Mahmoud Abbas, the acting as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee, are scheduled to travel to Gaza on Friday to meet with members of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Palestinian Authority's basic law calls for its parliament speaker to serve as acting president for 60 days until an election can be held.

CNN Correspondents Suzanne Malveaux in Washington, Guy Raz in Jerusalem and Jim Bittermann in Paris contributed to this report.

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