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    Sharon stirs controversy with TV speech
    By Timothy Heritage

    JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's scandal-plagued election campaign is facing mounting problems on Friday after a news conference (in which he denied wrongdoing and assailed his main rival) was yanked off the air.

    Israeli media slammed Sharon over Thursday's televised appearance, abruptly cut off in an unprecedented move by a judge overseeing electoral procedure who said the prime minister's political comments ran foul of broadcast regulations.

    But it was not clear whether the controversy over a $1.5 million (930,000 pound) loan from a South Africa-based businessman to one of Sharon's sons would in the long run reduce or rally support for the right-wing leader in the January 28 election.

    The scandal has sharply cut the formidable lead his Likud party has been enjoying in opinion polls over the main opposition centre-left Labour Party, led by Amram Mitzna.

    Voters' choice between the hawkish Sharon and his dovish challenger could determine the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sharon favours a tough military approach. Mitzna offers an unconditional resumption of peace talks.

    "Sharon, with almost no choice, is begging today for the voter's ballot slip, and placing his personality and history on the guillotine," commentator Shlomi Yerushalmi wrote in the Maariv newspaper.

    "If he drops in the (opinion) polls at the beginning of next week, this means that the public -- not only the left and the media, as Sharon contends -- wants to bring down the blade."

    Before the news conference was cut off, a visibly angry Sharon lashed out at Labour and its supporters, charging that for political motives they had spread "vicious gossip" about him, his family and the Likud.

    "What we have here is an abominable conspiracy to replace a prime minister through a campaign made up of lies," Sharon said pounding his fist on the lectern. But he cited no concrete proof to back his claim.

    Sharon denied any wrongdoing in connection with the $1.5 million loan that his son, Gilad, received from Cape Town-based businessman Cyril Kern, a long-time family friend. Israeli law bans political funding from abroad.

    The money was used as collateral to help Sharon repay what Israeli authorities determined had been an improper foreign contribution to his 1999 campaign to be elected Likud leader.

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