BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanese President Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term at midnight on Friday, leaving the country in a dangerous power vacuum after rival politicians failed again to elect his successor.
Before leaving office, he said he was handing over responsibility for the country's security to the army, a move promptly denounced by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora as unconstitutional.
The tense situation prompted calls from world leaders for the Lebanese to remain calm and for their leaders to find a compromise in the political deadlock that has gripped the country for the past year.
In a simple ceremony at midnight (2200 GMT), Lahoud walked out of the presidential palace to be greeted by a military honour guard and band before being driven away.
With tanks and troops on the streets of Beirut to maintain security, lawmakers from the Western-backed majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition had been scheduled to convene on Friday in a final bid to elect Lahoud's successor.
But the session was postponed, for the fifth time in two months.
"The session has been postponed until next Friday, November 30, to allow for more discussions and in order to reach an agreement," parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement.
Article 62 of the constitution stipulates that if no successor is chosen, presidential powers pass to the government.
Lahoud, a former army chief who has been head of state since 1998, had vowed not to hand power to Siniora, whose legitimacy he does not recognise.
Instead, presidential spokesman Rafiq Shalala announced Friday night that Lahoud had decided to hand over to the army responsibility for maintaining order throughout the country.
"There are conditions and risks on the ground that could lead to a state of emergency," he said. Lahoud had adopted the measure "given the exceptional circumstances and in the interest of the country."
The army, contacted by AFP, declined to comment.
The president, whose mandate had been controversially extended under a Syrian-inspired constitutional amendment in 2004, had already floated the idea of appointing an interim military government.
An official in Siniora's office said Lahoud's action "is not valid and (is) unconstitutional. It is as if the statement was never issued."
Following a Friday night cabinet meeting, Siniora said the government would carry on with its duties after midnight.
"The government is legitimate and constitutional ... and so it will continue to carry out its responsibilities and exercise all its prerogatives," he said in a statement.
The long-running standoff has prompted fears that two rival governments could be formed, as was the case at the end of the civil war.
Beirut's usually bustling streets were relatively Friday, with some schools shut down and many people remaining home for fear of unrest.
The ruling coalition had called on all MPs to attend Friday's session but the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran, said it would boycott the vote and warned against any attempt to elect a president without a two-thirds quorum.
The four previous sessions to pick a successor to Lahoud were called off despite foreign envoys scrambling to Beirut to get the rival sides to agree.
The ruling coalition, which has 68 deputies in the 127-member parliament, has repeatedly vowed to proceed to a simple majority vote if no agreement is reached, but it said this was no longer on the cards Friday.
"We have temporarily suspended our right to a simple majority vote," MP Elias Atallah said.
Ali Hassan Khalil, an opposition deputy, said his camp was determined to work hard on breaking the deadlock in the coming days.
"The opposition is determined to protect stability, civil peace, and to pursue negotiations to reach an accord on the presidency," he said.
The standoff began after the Shiite militant group, empowered by its 34-day war with Israel last year, pulled its ministers from the cabinet in November 2006 to gain more representation in government.
The crisis is widely seen as an extension of the regional confrontation pitting the United States against Iran and former powerbroker Syria.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he "regrets this development and urges all parties to maintain calm as well as to further intensify efforts to reach a compromise as soon as possible," according to a statement from his office.
He was "deeply concerned at the fragility of the situation" and called on "all parties to live up to their responsibilities and to act within the constitutional framework as well as in a peaceful and democratic manner."
The US State Department "urge all Lebanese political groups to do their part to maintain calm and promote security for Lebanon's citizens."
"Discussions should continue aimed at electing, as quickly as possible and according to the constitution and to democratic principles, a new Lebanese president who will stand for Lebanon's independence and sovereignty and uphold international resolutions."
In Brussels, the European Union's Portuguese presidency voiced regret over the situation and appealed to "all political parties to continue dialogue with a view to electing a president as soon as possible."
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