Medics begin waking Sharon from coma

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being gradually awoken on Monday from a deep coma so his doctors can assess the extent of damage to his brain following a massive stroke.

The procedure will be the biggest breakthrough in his condition since the 77-year-old former general has been wired up to a life support machine after a huge brain haemorrhage and three operations.

The director of Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, where Sharon has been treated since suffering a massive brain haemorrhage on Wednesday night, said that the prime minister had begun breathing spontaneously in the first sign of activity in his brain since he was placed in the coma.

“We have started to reduce the amount of anaesthesia,” Shlomo Mor Yosef told reporters.

“In the first stage, Mr Sharon has begun to breathe spontaneously although he is still connected to the ventilator. This is the first sign of some sort of activity in his brain.”

Doctors say he could survive but have ruled out the chances of him returning as prime minister, leaving Israel staring into a political void expected to be felt far beyond the country’s narrow borders in the wider Middle East.

Sharon has been comatose, in a critical sitution, since Wednesday night when he suffered his second stroke in less than three weeks, leaving Israelis addicted to television and radio bulletins for hourly news of his health.

After days of uncertainty, doctors have appeared more confident they can save his life but are warning his condition will not allow him to absorb the stresses of leading the Jewish state.

One doctor at the Hadassah told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity that he was running a risk of paralysis or other difficulties that will prevent him from ruling the country.

“We are in no doubt that we will be able to revive him… but he will probably not be able to resume his duties,” the source said.

Israelis and world leaders have already braced themselves for the end of the Sharon era, fearing his demise would spark new turmoil in a region struggling to find the path to peace after decades of conflict.

His plight has revived traumatic memories of the death of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin a decade ago, whose assassination by a Jewish extremist triggered a wave of violence and a collapse of the peace process.

His passing from politics will also leave stranded his new Kadima party that had been on course to emerge the largest player after an early general election fixed for March 28, although polls have so far given it strong leads.

With Sharon in intensive care, his stand-in Ehud Olmert has pledged business as usual.

Elder statesman Shimon Peres said he would endorse Olmert to lead Kadima into the next election, as did the former head of Israel’s domestic security service, Avi Dichter.

Olmert, while respected, has none of the clout nor the power base that enabled Sharon to bulldoze his way through opposition to last year’s pull-out from the Gaza Strip, the defining moment of his five-year premiership.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat urged Olmert to reopen negotiations with the Palestinian Authority which was largely boycotted by Sharon despite his pledges to work with its president, Mahmud Abbas.

“Unfortunately, he [Sharon] stopped negotiations and did not make us partners,” he said.

“We offer him [Olmert] our hands and urge him to consider coming back and resuming negotiations immediately, because I believe this is the only way for Palestinians and Israelis to stay the course and to save lives and to change the pattern of the way we are living now.”

An editorial in Monday’s Haaretz newspaper said Olmert must meet soon with Abbas to resolve a series of burning issues.

“That would impart a positive dimension to his newly acquired leadership among many sectors of the Israeli public, as well as among the American administration and international public opinion,” it said. - AFP

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