PARIS — Ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who for decades has constructed and jealously guarded his role as the sole embodiment of the Palestinian national movement, arrived in Paris by air Friday afternoon and was immediately rushed to a French military hospital for treatment.
Arafat, 75, left his shell-battered compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for the first time in more than two years, after receiving assurances from his longtime enemy, Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, that he would be allowed to return after undergoing treatment.
Bundled in a military-style overcoat and fur hat, a pale, gaunt but smiling Arafat slowly made his way to a helicopter that had landed in the compound. Hundreds of chanting supporters surrounded the aircraft, and others cheered from nearby rooftops.
The helicopter flew Arafat to Amman, the Jordanian capital, where he was transferred to a French military aircraft that brought him and his wife, Suha, to a military base on the outskirts of Paris. There he was transferred again, to a helicopter for the hop to Percy military hospital in Clamart, a southwestern suburb.
Cameramen at the scene said a wheelchair and stretcher were brought out to the tarmac and that Arafat, looking frail and tired, was whisked into the hospital on the stretcher.
Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Authority's envoy here, emerged three hours later to say Arafat was conscious, "in good shape," and undergoing tests to determine the cause of his illness. "As you know, Mr. Arafat has been suffering from intestinal flu for two weeks, but there is more to it than that," she told reporters gathered outside the sealed-off hospital, which specializes in blood disorders, including cancer.
Arafat expressed gratitude for the French government's decision to accept him for treatment, according to Shahid. "We are relieved that he is finally in the proper place, in the care of proper doctors," she said.
Arafat has suffered for months from an apparent stomach disorder and other ailments. But until Friday he had refused to seek medical treatment outside his compound, where he has been under virtual Israeli house arrest since March 2002, fearing Israeli authorities would not allow him to return to Palestinian territory.
His symptoms appeared to have worsened in recent weeks. Associates say he has been unable to eat and suffers from vomiting and diarrhea. They have offered conflicting explanations for the symptoms, ascribing them at different times to severe flu, an intestinal infection, gallstones and a blood disorder, possibly leukemia.
French President Jacques Chirac, who personally granted the Palestinian request for Arafat to receive treatment here, said France welcomed the Palestinian leader. "All I can do today is to send him my warmest wishes that he regains his health as quickly as possible," he told reporters in Rome, where he was attending a signing ceremony for the first European constitution.
France has long maintained good relations with Arafat, arguing that he should be seen as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian nation even after Washington and Jerusalem denounced him as an obstacle to peace and sought to isolate him diplomatically.
Arafat, in turn, has frequently praised the French. After his sixth visit to Paris several years ago, Arafat stated publicly that whenever he had a problem, he went to see "Dr. Chirac." Suha Arafat has lived in Paris for four years.
Soldiers and police ringed the hospital Friday, keeping journalists and onlookers at a distance. Still, a few dozen supporters gathered outside with signs and flowers to welcome the Palestinian leader.
"We're worried about his health," said Mohammed Abdallah, 52, a Palestinian refugee living in Paris. "I am sad to know he has left Palestinian territory, where he needs to be."
A group of French Jews said it would file a complaint with the office of Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a senior anti-terrorism judge, demanding that Arafat be held pending an investigation of his alleged role in terror attacks on Israeli civilians.
Contributing: Maria Gabriella Bonetti.