The frail, 75-year-old Palestinian leader was having medical tests and a full diagnosis was unlikely for several days, a Palestinian representative in Paris, Leila Shahid, told journalists.

With Arafat away from his West Bank headquarters at Ramallah for the first time in three years, ex-prime minister Mahmud Abbas seemed in pole position to grab the lion’s share of power in the volatile Palestinian territories.

Arafat arrived at the hospital by helicopter after being flown to a nearby military airbase on board a French government jet from Jordan in an emergency medical evacuation authorised by Israeli authorities.

“Yasser Arafat is very tired, but he is conscious and relieved to be here,” Ms Shahid said, adding that his wife Suha was with him.

The hospital treating him is a state-of-the-art facility which specialises in trauma cases and blood illnesses.

Opened in 1996, it employs 1,200 staff, 110 of them army doctors, and boasts a radiology centre and blood transfusion unit.

The Palestinian leader was initially diagnosed with severe influenza, but one of his doctors has said that further tests revealed a disorder in which his white blood cells were destroying blood platelets needed for blood clotting and immediate foreign medical care was vital.

That could signal an advanced stage of cancer, according to specialists.

It is the first time in three years that Arafat, who has become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, has left his West Bank base, a sign of the gravity of his condition.

He was made a virtual prisoner after the latest Palestinian uprising, which started in September 2000, plunged the region into a new Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

French President Jacques Chirac, speaking from Rome, said the decision to admit Arafat was in line with France’s tradition as a “land of refuge.”

“It was natural that France, a land of refuge, would not question the right of the president of the Palestinian Authority to come for medical treatment in our country,” he told reporters.

Sources close to the French president said Chirac had personally made the decision to allow Arafat to be treated here.

Suha Arafat, a French-educated Palestinian who is half Arafat’s age, lives in Paris with the couple’s nine-year-old daughter, Zahwa. Both had rushed to be with him when the seriousness of his condition became apparent this week, the first time they had seen him in three years.

The Palestinian leader had appeared cheery earlier. Wearing a dark green military overcoat and a fur hat instead of his trademark chequered keffiyeh headdress, he blew kisses to a waiting crowd as he was taken from his compound at Ramallah by helicopter to Jordan before boarding the jet to France.

Israel, which has declared Arafat an obstacle to peace and threatened to kill him several times, has promised not to impede his departure or his return to Ramallah.

Palestinian sources said Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei and Abbas, number two in Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation, would take charge of the Palestinian Authority in Arafat’s absence.

Abbas is taking temporary charge of the PLO and Arafat’s Fatah faction, and will be in the chair for a meeting of the PLO’s executive committee this week.

Qorei has been handed responsibility for calling and chairing meetings of Arafat’s national security council, effectively cementing his reputation as a loyal deputy.

Gulf region newspapers urged Palestinian factions not to slip into an internal power struggle if Arafat dies and should instead close ranks.

“A negative development in the state of Yasser Arafat’s health will have major repercussions on the future of the Palestinian cause and the future of the region,” said the Saudi daily Okaz.