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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shows signs of significant brain activity say doctors

By Alistair Dawber in Jerusalem

Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who suffered a huge stroke seven years ago that has since left him in a vegetative state, has shown signs of significant brain activity say doctors treating the 84 year-old.

Mr Sharon - Israel's leader between 2001 and 2006 -is unlikely that he will wake from the coma he has been in since suffering the stroke, say doctors, but that the results of a medical examination last Thursday were "encouraging".

Mr Sharon "might be awake, and there is a chance that he is conscious," Alon Friedman, a neurological director at Israel's Soroka Medical Centre in Beersheba told Reuters. "To some extent the patient is what we call 'locked in', he understands and responds with his brain but cannot activate any muscles."

Mr Sharon's career was marked by controversy. As a candidate before the 2001 general election, he visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, the world's holiest place for Jews, and the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Some observers argue that the visited sparked the Second Intifada, but defenders of Mr Sharon say the Palestinian uprising had already been planned.

A career soldier who reached the rank of Major-General in the Israeli Defence Force, in 2003 he withdrew from the Gaza Strip, a move that was welcomed by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel's left.

However, a year after leaving Likud and forming a new centrist party, Kadima, he was struck in January 2006 by the stroke that has since left him needing constant medical care.

Dr Friedman said that the former prime minister's eyes were open for some of last week's assessment, and that he responded to the sight of family photographs. "The results of the tests are not clear but encouraging, and they surprised us," he added.

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