updated 5/28/2006 3:57:57 AM ET 2006-05-28T07:57:57

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for nearly five months, left Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem in an ambulance Sunday en route to a long-term care facility in Tel Aviv, hospital officials said.

Sharon’s transfer to Sheba Medical Center, a facility more suited to providing him with extended care, signaled his medical team did not believe he was likely to emerge any time soon from the coma he fell into after suffering a devastating stroke Jan. 4.

Reporters at the hospital saw an ambulance leave in a motorcade filled with police and security vehicles Sunday morning, and Hadassah spokesman Ron Krumer confirmed that Sharon had been moved.

Dr. Yuli Krieger, the deputy head of Levinstein House, another long-term care facility, told Israel Radio on Sunday that the 78-year-old former leader’s chances of waking up after such a lengthy coma were small.

“Every day that passes after this kind of event with the patient still unconscious the chances that he will gain consciousness get smaller,” said Krieger, who was not directly involved in Sharon’s care.

Sharon was Israel’s most popular politician, and the country was stunned to see the man, who for decades personified Israel’s military might, felled by illness.

His stroke came after Sharon saw through his contentious plan to withdrawal Israel from the Gaza Strip after 38 years, and just two months after Sharon shook up the Israeli political map by bolting his hardline Likud Party to form the centrist Kadima faction.

With Sharon as its leader, Kadima was expected to easily win Israeli elections. After the stroke, Sharon’s successor as party leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, led Kadima to a slim victory in the March 28 vote.

Olmert has painted his plan to withdraw Israel from much of the West Bank, solidify its hold on major settlement blocs and unilaterally draw the country’s borders in the coming years as a continuation of Sharon’s “disengagement plan,” which began with the Gaza withdrawal.

Sharon had a small stroke in December and was put on blood thinners before he suffered a severe brain hemorrhage in January. The Israeli leader underwent several, extensive brain surgeries to stop the bleeding, and many independent experts doubted that he would ever recover.

The last surgery on Sharon, in April, was to reattach a part of his skull, removed during the emergency surgery to reduce pressure on his brain. The reattachment was described as a necessary step before transferring Sharon to a long-term care facility.

Israeli media said that the medical staff at Sheba would try to wean Sharon off a respirator and make other efforts to revive him.

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