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Comatose ex-Israeli PM moved home from hospital

Israel's comatose former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was moved home to his ranch today, nearly five years after being incapacitated by a series of strokes while still in office.

Medical teams took the former leader, who has been in a coma since early 2006 and is attached to a respirator, from his room in the long-term care unit of a hospital outside Tel Aviv at dawn today. Security crews erected screens so he would not be visible when he was wheeled out of the building and into a waiting ambulance.

From the hospital, security guards in SUVs escorted the ambulance to Sharon's family ranch in southern Israel.

There has been no change reported in Sharon's condition, and the move is the result of modern medical thinking that prefers to see long-term patients treated "in the community" rather than in hospitals, said Dr Shlomo Noi, an official from Tel Hashomer Hospital.

While Sharon, 82, showed "minimal responses," there was no indication he would emerge from the coma, Noi told Israel Radio today.

"Beyond that, we have only hope," he said.

Sharon, a war hero and politician, was for decades one of Israel's most controversial figures.

He was a daring army officer who fought for Israel in three wars, reaching the rank of major general in the 1970s and earning a reputation of sometimes disobeying orders from his superiors. After leaving the military, Sharon turned to politics, becoming a hawkish lawmaker in the Likud Party and an enthusiastic supporter of the movement to settle the West Bank and Gaza with Israelis.

He served as defence minister when hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps south of Beirut were killed in 1982 by a Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel. An Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the deaths and forced him to resign a year later.

Sharon found popularity as prime minister between 2001 and 2006. He led Israel's successful military response to the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada, all but ending it by 2004. The next year, he reversed his years of hard-line, pro-settlement policies and pulled all of Israel's soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip.

That same year he left the hawkish Likud Party, which he helped found, and formed the centrist Kadima, a party designed to be centered largely on his own personality. But only months later, at the age of 77 and considerably overweight, Sharon suffered a series of strokes that left him comatose. Sharon was kept in the long-term care unit at Tel Hashomer Hospital outside Tel Aviv until today. Ahead of his transfer, Dr Zeev Rothstein, the hospital's director, described Sharon's condition as "mini-unconsciousness, meaning he is not unconscious but he is not fully conscious."

"He needs assistance in all daily activities," the doctor told Israel's Channel 10 TV on Thursday.

The former prime minister, who has two sons, will be cared for at home by a medical staff. He is expected to be returned to hospital for regular checkups.