RAMALLAH (Palestinian Territories) - The Palestinians on Tuesday began work to open the grave of iconic leader Yasser Arafat ahead of an exhumation of his body for a murder probe, a source close to his family said.
"Today they started removing concrete and stones from Arafat's mausoleum and the work will last for almost 15 days," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There are several phases," he said, referring to the opening of the tomb ahead of a visit by French, Swiss and Russian experts to forensically test Arafat's remains over suspicions he was poisoned with radioactive substance polonium.
"It starts with the removal of stone and concrete and cutting the iron (framework) until they reach the soil that covers the body, which will not be removed until the arrival of the French prosecutors, Swiss experts and Russian investigators," the source said.
On Monday, Arafat's mausoleum, which is located at the Muqataa presidential headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah was screened from public view with blue tarpaulins ahead of the operation to open the grave.
The process of taking samples is expected to begin at the end of the month after the French and Swiss delegations arrive on November 26, officials have said.
"Because of Arafat's position and his status, no-one will be allowed, under any circumstances, to photograph his body while the samples are taken," the source said.
When Arafat died at the age of 75 in a French military hospital near Paris on November 11, 2004, French doctors were unable to say what had killed him.
Many Palestinians are convinced he was poisoned by Israel.
French prosecutors opened a murder inquiry in August after Al-Jazeera television broadcast an investigation in which Swiss experts said they had found high levels of radioactive polonium on Arafat's personal effects.
Speaking at a ceremony to mark the eighth anniversary of Arafat's death on Sunday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Russia would also be helping the investigation, although he did not specify how.
"We hope for new facts that we can tell our people and the public," Abbas said.
The new investigation, he said, was "bigger and more important" that the uproar created by the Al-Jazeera inquiry.
Polonium is a highly toxic substance rarely found outside military and scientific circles which was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking tea laced with the poison at a London hotel.
The French murder inquiry was opened in late August at the request of Arafat's widow Suha, but it has caused a split within the family, with the veteran leader's nephew Nasser al-Qidwa on Saturday condemning the exhumation plans as "a hateful idea."