Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is in very critical condition - his life in the balance. That's the word from the hospital in Jerusalem where Mr. Sharon underwent emergency surgery.

Mr. Sharon has lain comatose in Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital since he suffered a massive stroke on January 4.

He had been listed in critical, but stable condition. But the situation has now worsened, as hospital spokesman Ron Krumer explained.

"This morning the doctors saw that Mr. Sharon's condition worsened," he said. "They (did a) CT scan of his abdomen, which showed severe damage to his digestive system, which led them to decide to take him immediately to the operating room."

Doctors were apparently doing routine tests on Mr. Sharon's stomach when they discovered the worsening condition.

Since his debilitating stroke last month, Mr. Sharon has undergone seven operations and has remained in a coma. Doctors had not expected him to fully recover, but now they say his life is hanging in the balance.

Mr. Sharon's sudden illness shocked Israelis, the majority of whom saw in him a strong leader who could restore a sense of security after more than five years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

His second in command, Ehud Olmert, took over the reins of government as interim prime minister when Mr. Sharon fell ill. Mr. Olmert has vowed to continue Mr. Sharon's policies. Israeli voters go to the polls the end of March to elect a new government.