Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began breathing on his own yesterday after doctors started bringing him out of an induced coma to assess damage caused by his massive stroke, doctors said.
A report on Israeli television said that Sharon, wired up to a life support machine since suffering a massive hemorrhage last Wednesday, had managed to raise his right arm several hours after the delicate procedure began.
Outside experts said that while independent breathing meant Sharon had better chances for survival, it gave no indication of his other physical or mental capacities.
Doctors made the decision to lift the anesthesia after a round of consultations yesterday. Hospital director Shlomo Mor-Yosef said the process of weaning Sharon from sedation could take hours or days.
"As soon as we started reducing the drugs ... the prime minister started to breathe independently, although he is still hooked up to a respirator that is used as an aid," Mor-Yosef said, adding that Sharon remains in critical condition.
Outside experts have said doctors should have a good idea of the extent of the damage by the end of the day. One of Sharon's neurosurgeons has cautioned that it was unlikely he could function as prime minister again.
After withdrawing the sedatives, doctors are to pass their assessment of brain damage to Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who will then 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 such a declaration, Galanti added.
Ehud Olmert, Sharon's deputy, was named acting prime minister after Sharon suffered the stroke last Wednesday, and can serve in that role for 100 days.
In the event the attorney general declares permanent incapacitation, the Cabinet would have to elect a new prime minister within 24 hours from among the five sitting Cabinet ministers from Sharon's Kadima Party who are also lawmakers, Galanti said.
That group includes Olmert, a potential political heir.
Olmert told the Cabinet on Sunday that he would work to carry on Sharon's political legacy.
Doctors have kept Sharon in a medically induced coma and on a respirator since Thursday to give him time to heal from the trauma of the stroke and the surgeries.
Doctors not involved in Sharon's care said that if he awakens, the extent of his responses could vary widely, from slight movements of the fingers or opening of the eyes, to a much fuller awakening. They also cautioned that there is no guarantee Sharon will awaken from the anesthesia.