The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is seriously ill in a Jerusalem hospital after suffering a second stroke within three weeks and " massive bleeding" in the brain.
The Prime Minister's powers were formally transferred to his deputy, Ehud Olmert, as doctors confirmed that the 77-year-old Mr Sharon had had a " significant stroke".
He was transferred to intensive care after seven hours of surgery, and his vital signs are stable, the director of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem said today.
The director, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, said Mr Sharon remained in a serious condition. He said the surgery had stopped the massive bleeding in Sharon's brain.
Mr Sharon, who has overwhelmingly dominated Israeli politics since the beginning of this century, was taken by ambulance from his ranch in the Negev desert after complaining of pain. He was lifted by stretcher from the vehicle into the Hadassah hospital's trauma unit. He was reported to have been connected immediately to a respirator.
The Prime Minister, who is the last of the founding fathers of the Israeli state to have played a major military role in the 1948 war of independence, had already been due to undergo a catheterisation procedure at the same hospital today. That was to treat a hole in the heart which doctors said had caused the first stroke.
Mr Sharon was said to be under anaesthetic as he was given a battery of tests before being sent to the operating theatre. He had been receiving blood-thinning medication ahead of today's scheduled procedure.
Mr Sharon's condition quickly emerged as being more serious than initial reports suggested. They had emphasised that he had been conscious and talking on the way to the hospital. He was reportedly accompanied by his son Omri during the journey from Sycamore Ranch.
The fresh crisis in Mr Sharon's medical condition comes after one of the most intense periods in a military and political career which has lasted longer than the state of Israel itself. It also comes less than three months before an election in which he was seeking a third term as Prime Minister.
Faced with elections brought forward because of Labour's decision to pull out of the coalition after the surprise election of Amir Peretz as Labour leader, the Prime Minister walked out of the dominant Likud and formed his own party, Kadima, late last year. The party, which Mr Sharon formed because of what he said were "intolerable" antics by dissidents in the Likud party - which he played the leading part in founding in 1973 - went quickly to first place in the opinion polls.
Doctors who had taken the unprecedented step of revealing details from his medical records only a week ago had been bullish about his prognosis, saying that - subject to the treatment he was due to have today - he had suffered no lasting damage. They said that he had lost the power of speech only briefly after his first stroke.
The doctors reported that Mr Sharon, who had often joked about his bulk, weighed 115kg (17st 7lb) and had shed three kilos since his stroke. He had been urged by doctors to diet - advice reinforced by President George Bush who also suggested to him to take more exercise.
Shortly after Mr Sharon left for the hospital, one of his spokesmen, Ra'anan Gissin, said that Mr Sharon had felt some chest discomfort. "Apparently when he went back to his farm this evening he felt slight pains in the chest and some weakness and, in the presence of his doctor and upon his advice, he said he should be taken to the hospital."
With President Bush being kept informed of the progress of Mr Sharon's treatment, the White House said the "thoughts and prayers" of Americans were with the widowed Prime Minister and his family. Israel's Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, called on Israelis to read psalms and pray for Mr Sharon. "We are very, very worried," he said, and prayed for " mercy from Heaven".
In a brief statement outside the Jerusalem hospital, Dr Shlomo Mor-Yosef, a leading physician at the famous Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, said Mr Sharon had suffered "a significant stroke," adding a few minutes later that initial tests showed he had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, or bleeding inside the brain. Addressing reporters in English, Dr Mor-Yosef said Mr Sharon had "massive bleeding and was being transferred to an operating theatre".
Channel 2 television said Mr Sharon was suffering from paralysis in his lower body, and an unnamed senior doctor - basing his diagnosis on the information which Mr Sharon's doctors had released - said the Prime Minister's chances of returning to full functioning were "not high" .
Mr Sharon's personal physician, Dr Shlomo Segev, said the Prime Minister was in surgery, and the operation he was undergoing would take several hours. "I expect him to emerge from it safely," he said.
An ambulance was called to collect Mr Sharon at his ranch in the Negev after complaining about feeling unwell. Dr Shmuel Shapira, the deputy director of the Hadassah hospital, said the stroke developed as he was being taken to hospital in Jerusalem, a drive of about an hour.
His admission incidentally came only a day after an Israeli television station reported that police were investigating suspicions that Mr Sharon had received some $3m (£1.7m) from an Austrian casino magnate to cover campaign funding before he took office in 2001. But, although debated widely, the new report had been thought unlikely to affect his electoral chances. A long-running investigation into his repayment of contributions was also not expected to be completed until well after polling day. Nevertheless, the prominent Labour Knesset member Yuli Tamir had demanded earlier yesterday that he should give a full account of the affair, saying that if he did not it would show that he "had something to hide".
Mr Sharon, the long-standing champion of the right wing, had provoked gibes of "betrayal" of his former allies by pressing ahead with withdrawal of troops and 8,500 settlers from Gaza last August. More than any other single politician he had fostered the growth of settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza was chaotic yesterday. Armed militants bulldozed a wall on the southern border in order to free a man who was arrested in connection with the kidnapping of the British human rights activist Kate Burton. The masked gunmen overran four public buildings and closed off the Rafah crossing into Egypt after trying to kidnap five Americans, including the parents of Rachel Corrie, killed by Israelis in 2003 as she tried to stop the demolition of a house in the Gaza town.
The kidnap attempt in the early hours of yesterday by six members of the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades was abandoned after the Corries' Palestinian host, Samir Nasrallah, persuaded the men to leave after a tense half-hour stand-off.
Egyptian troops fired into the air as armoured vehicles and soldiers failed to stop hundreds of Palestinians streaming across the border after the gunmen commandeered two bulldozers and punched a hole in the 8m-high wall separating Rafah from the Philadelphia corridor between Egypt and Gaza.
By Geneviève Roberts
A stroke is caused by a sudden interruption of blood flow to the brain. Ariel Sharon has suffered a haemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. Bleeding within the brain puts pressure on cerebral tissue and creates swelling. This can deprive brain cells of oxygen and cause them to die.
A haemorrhagic stroke requires immediate neurosurgical intervention. In the event of massive bleeding, surgeons can try to drain the blood.
Causes of haemorrhagic strokes include high blood pressure, burst arteries, blood-thinning medication and ischemic (minor) strokes.
Sharon suffered an ischemic stroke in December as a result of a blood clot. Studies show that people who have suffered such attacks have a 40 per cent chance of experiencing another stroke within 10 years.
Haemorrhagic strokes are more rare and fatal than ischemic strokes. Medical studies show that up to 38 per cent of brain haemorrhages cause death within 30 days. About half of the people who survive a stroke will be left with significant disability.Reuse content