JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began breathing on his own and moved his hand and leg in response to stimulation on Monday, as doctors brought him out of a medically induced coma.
"The first reaction was spontaneous breathing even though he was still connected to the breathing apparatus," Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director of the Hadassah Hospital team caring for Sharon, said at a press conference.
Mor-Yosef added that the prime minister moved his right hand and right leg slightly when pain was used as a stimulator.
According to outside medical experts, the independent breathing was a good sign, but it gave no indication about Sharon's other physical or mental capacities in the wake of his massive stroke. Damage to the brain can occur if it is deprived of oxygen for periods of time. Doctors induced the coma Thursday to give Sharon's brain time to heal from the stroke and subsequent surgeries.
Doctors said the prime minister suffered damage to the right side of his brain but it was still too early to determine whether any harm had come to the left side of the brain, which controls speech and comprehension.
After withdrawing the sedatives, doctors will pass their assessment of brain damage to Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who then will decide whether to declare the prime minister permanently incapacitated.
"The minute we know what damage has occurred, we will talk," Justice Ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti said.
Since an acting prime minister is in place, there is no urgency to make such a declaration, Galanti added. Ehud Olmert, Sharon's deputy, was named acting prime minister after Sharon's second stroke last week and can serve in that role for 100 days.
In the event the attorney general declares permanent incapacitation, the Cabinet would elect a new prime minister within 24 hours, choosing from the five Cabinet ministers from Sharon's Kadima Party who also are lawmakers, Galanti said.
That group includes Olmert.
Sharon, who suffered a mild stroke Dec. 18, felt weak last Wednesday and was rushed to Hadassah from his ranch in southern Israel when a blood vessel on the right side of his brain burst, causing massive cerebral hemorrhaging. The stroke occurred the night before he was scheduled to undergo a procedure to close a hole in his heart that contributed to the earlier stroke.
He has undergone two surgeries to stop the bleeding in his brain and relieve the pressure inside his skull.
Sharon, Israel's most popular politician, was seen by many here as the best hope for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. His abrupt illness and expected departure from the Mideast political stage has raised concern that momentum on territorial concessions, created by his recent Gaza Strip withdrawal, would be stopped, and that Sharon's successor would not have the stature to forge ahead on drawing Israel's final borders.
Before his collapse, Sharon appeared headed to a landslide victory in March 28 elections as the head of the Kadima Party, which seeks further pullbacks while strengthening Israel's hold over major settlement blocs.
Olmert told the Cabinet on Sunday he would work to carry on Sharon's political legacy.
Sharon's condition and the uncertainty it has generated has unsettled Israelis. At the hospital entrance Monday, three Jerusalemites hung up a white sheet with blue lettering in English and Hebrew that read, "Ariel Sharon, there is more to do, please wake up."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.