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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will remain under heavy sedation and on a respirator for at least 48 hours more, the director of Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, Jerusalem said Thursday evening, some 24 hours after he suffered an "extensive" stroke and a massive brain hemorrhage.

"This is a lengthy process," Professor Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef said when asked when Sharon could be expected to regain consciousness. "It won't be in the coming hours. It will be at least 48 hours after the prime minister's emergence from surgery."

Mor-Yosef said that Sharon's pupils were responding to stimulation.

The hospital chief also defended the decision to take Sharon to the Jerusalem hospital, rather than drive to the nearer medical center in Be'er Sheva. He said that it was better for the prime minister to have been treated at the hospital that knew his case.

Neurosurgeons had fought to stabilize Sharon's condition and stop new bleeding detected in his brain Thursday morning, more than eight hours after the prime minister was rushed into emergency surgery.

"The situation is still serious, but it's stable," Mor-Yosef said earlier Thursday, as Sharon lay in intensive care.

"All the parameters... are as expected following this type of surgery. Part of the treatment of the prime minister, in order to preserve low pressure in the skull, is sedation and respiration for at least the next 24 hours."

Mor-Yosef earlier addressed rumors sweeping the country that Sharon's condition is far worse than described by his doctors.

"I came here first to update you and second to stop the rumors that are flooding the country," he said. "I pledge that every change in the prime minister's condition will be announced in a statement by Hadassah."

Sharon emerged from hours of surgery Thursday morning with vital signs showing "functional and stable" levels, and with a CT scan showing that the bleeding in his brain had been halted. But the prime minister's condition remained grave, Mor-Yosef said.

"The prime minister had a CT scan that showed that the bleeding has stopped," Mor-Yosef told reporters at the entrance to the Jerusalem hospital. "He was then put in the neurological emergency unit for observation."

According to Mor-Yosef, "All vital signs are functional and stable. The prime minister is in critical condition." There was no word as to the damage Sharon may have suffered.

Israel Radio, noting that Sharon was in intensive care, said "The assessment is that he is in a lfe-threatening state."

Olmert becomes acting prime ministerOn Wednesday night, Sharon's prime ministerial authority was transferred to Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the course of a telephone call with Olmert, Maimon and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.

Olmert convened the cabinet for an emergency meeting at 9 A.M. Thursday, where he conveyed the government's hopes for Sharon's recovery.

Sharon was rushed to the hospital shortly before 11 P.M. Wednesday night after complaining of chest pains, less than three weeks after suffering a mild stroke and the day before he had been set to undergo a heart procedure.

At around 5:30 A.M. Thursday, Sharon's physician, Professor Bolek Goldman, left the hospital accompanied by Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon and the prime minister's political advisor, Erez Halfon.

Goldman had said Wednesday night that he expected Sharon "to emerge from [surgery] safely."

The three refused to answer questions about the prime minister's surgery, which ended a short time later.

Sharon adviser Ra'anan Gissin stressed, however, that the government was functioning despite the prime minister's illness. "A state isn't run only by the people who stand at its head... all the ministers and all the ministries are functioning - whether that's the Defense Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry - there's no power vacuum situation in a democratic state like Israel."

"The prime minister has fought many battles and he has survived them all, and I think that he will win this battle too," he concluded.