Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to France, denied earlier reports that Arafat was being kept alive on life support. "He is in a coma," she said.
Secrecy has shrouded the condition of Arafat, 75, since he fell ill three weeks ago at his battered West Bank compound, intensifying after he was airlifted to France on Oct. 29 for treatment of a mysterious ailment that had caused him to collapse. On Thursday, there was increasing confusion and reports that the Palestinian leader had died.
Despite the lack of firm information, it seemed clear that the Palestinian Authority president was fighting for his life at the Percy Army Teaching Hospital in the Paris suburb of Clamart, where more than 150 journalists from around the world gathered in anticipation of grim news.
Arafat's precipitous decline has raised fears of a chaotic power struggle in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinian leader — a symbol of his people's statehood aspirations for nearly four decades — has always refused to designate a successor.
In the West Bank, both of the main Palestinian leadership bodies — the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee and the Central Committee of Arafat's Fatah faction — met in closed-door sessions at the shabby headquarters vacated by Arafat last week. The sense of anxiety was palpable; Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told reporters that senior Palestinian officials were speaking with French hospital officials every 30 minutes.
Senior Israeli officials, including the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, held their own gathering to discuss the potential repercussions of Arafat's death. Israel has for many months had a military contingency plan, code-named "New Leaf," in place in the event of an end to Arafat's leadership.
French President Jacques Chirac paid a brief visit to Arafat about 3:15 p.m. and left without comment. Afterward, presidential aides told French media that Arafat was alive when Chirac visited him.
About 5:30 p.m., a high-ranking French military doctor gave a short statement emphasizing that Arafat was still alive. The statement was brief, he said, because Arafat's family had requested "discretion."
"Mr. Arafat has not died," said the physician, Gen. Christian Estripeau. He said Arafat's condition had worsened, requiring his transfer to a specialized unit Wednesday afternoon.
"Mr. President Yasser Arafat remains hospitalized," Estripeau continued. "His clinical situation has become more complex."
Arafat was transferred to the hospital's intensive care unit after his condition deteriorated sharply, another French official said. "His condition is grave," said the official, who requested anonymity.
The French officials spoke during a day of mounting confusion, in which a number of reports surfaced that Arafat was in a coma, brain-dead or had expired.
Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg — speaking almost the same time that Estripeau was assuring journalists Arafat was alive — told reporters in Brussels that the Palestinian leader had died. Juncker later retracted that claim.
In Washington, the issue came up during President Bush's televised news conference.
"I know you haven't had a chance to learn this, but it appears that Yasser Arafat has passed away," said Bill Sammon of the Washington Times after being called on for a question.
"Really?" Bush responded.
"And I was just wondering if I could get your initial reaction. And also your thoughts on, perhaps, working with a new generation of Palestinian leadership." Sammons continued.
"I appreciate that," Bush replied. "My first reaction is, God bless his soul. And my second reaction is, is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that's at peace with Israel."