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Arafat in coma as concerns increase over burial

Palestinians say leader in reversible coma

Yasser Arafat 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 as concerns heightened over possibilities for his burial and the future of Palestinian leadership.

Although Arafat's family wants a Jerusalem burial, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled it out.

Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid lambasted the idea.

"Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried, and not Arab terrorists," Lapid said.

Islamic custom requires burial within 24 hours of death. Two U.S. administration officials have said machines were keeping Arafat alive until his family and officials from France, Israel and Egypt could reach a decision about a burial site.

But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat denied any such plan.

U.S. officials contend the ailing 75-year-old is near death.

Palestinian representatives said he is in a reversible coma that doctors induced to perform a biopsy. But medical experts said doctors generally do not induce comas for biopsies. They said a coma is much more likely the result of the illness itself.

On Friday evening, a hospital spokesman issued a short statement about Arafat's condition and told the press he would not answer questions.

Christian Estripeau of the Percy Military Training Hospital said Arafat's condition had not worsened during the last 24 hours, and doctors considered him "stable in comparison to the last communication," which the hospital gave Thursday.

Palestinian denials

Ending life support and issuing an official declaration of Arafat's death would not be done until burial negotiations are complete, the two officials said, and they expect that to happen within 24 to 48 hours.

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

Erakat said reports of Arafat being on life support systems were baseless. And he denied doctors were keeping Arafat alive while officials and family members made burial decisions.

Leila Shahid, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Paris, said Arafat was in a coma but that it was "reversible." During an interview Friday on French Radio, Shahid denied reports that Arafat is brain-dead.

A longtime Arafat friend, Munib Masri of Nablus, visited him Friday afternoon and said Arafat's condition was not as dire as earlier reports described. Masri said Arafat's recovery seemed possible.

PLO Foreign Minister Farouq al-Qaddoumi thanked French President Jacques Chirac for his hospitality and for facilitating top medical treatment for Arafat.

He added that because of the statements from various sources about Arafat's condition, "We have agreed that the medical team will take on the responsibility of issuing health statements on a regular basis in order to ensure accuracy and to avoid speculations and rumors."

A sensitive issue

Arafat's family always has wanted him buried in Jerusalem, but Sharon has ruled out that possibility.

French, Israeli and Egyptian officials, who have been in contact with Arafat's family, said there have been discussions about burying Arafat in Egypt.

Arafat's father and sister are buried near Khan Yunis in central Gaza, and that area is also a possibility.

Erakat said Friday that negotiations were not occurring, but he also said, "We hope we don't need to engage in such negotiations over this issue. I hope Israelis would show sensitivity."

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.

The Israeli government received no formal request from Arafat's family involving his burial, the official said.

The White House is in communication with French officials about Arafat's status and is receiving regular updates, according to officials familiar with talks with the Palestinian Authority president, his inner circle and his wife.

Leaving the compound

Arafat arrived in Paris last week after a team of doctors in the West Bank city of Ramallah said they had not been able to determine the cause of his illness.

After a call from Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei to Sharon, Israel announced it would allow Arafat to go anywhere his doctors thought necessary and would let him return to his Ramallah compound.

Israel had confined Arafat there since 2002, accusing him of provoking suicide bombings and other violent acts in the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000, charges that Arafat denies.

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.

Qorei and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas 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.

During Arafat's absence, Qorei, deputy head of the National Security Council, has been serving as acting head of the security committee, and Abbas, secretary-general of the executive committee of the PLO, is acting chairman of the PLO.

Erakat and other Palestinian officials have denied that any plan is made for a post-Arafat era, but they have also said Palestinian institutions will retain stability.

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

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