Lebanon's opposition to boycott presidential vote

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BEIRUT, Sep 24 (Reuters) Hezbollah and its allies said today they would boycott a parliamentary session to prevent the anti-Syrian majority from electing a new president for Lebanon.

Police and troops clamped extra security around the assembly building in Beirut before Tuesday's session, whose original purpose of picking a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud looks doomed to fail. Lahoud leaves office on November 24.

''If there is no consensus (on a new president), our bloc will not attend the session,'' Ali Hassan Khalil, one of 16 MPs loyal to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Damascus who also heads the Shi'ite Amal movement, told Reuters.

Amal's opposition partners, the Shi'ite Hezbollah group and Christian leader Michel Aoun's faction, also plan to stay away, blocking any chance of mustering the two-thirds quorum required to elect a president in the first round of voting.

The anti-Syrian ruling coalition has only a slim majority, which was slimmed further by last week's car bombing that killed Christian MP Antoine Ghanem, the fourth anti-Syrian legislator to be assassinated since the last parliamentary poll in 2005.

The presidential contest, the first since Syrian troops left Lebanon in April 2005, has aggravated what was already the country's worst political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Armoured troop carriers, fire engines and ambulances strengthened a cordon around parliament and nearby Serail government headquarters, already sealed off by barbed wire from a tent camp the opposition set up nearly 10 months ago to try to topple Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's US-backed cabinet.

The government, which fears more attempts to cut its majority by assassination, met to discuss security for the parliament meeting, the first Berri has called this year.

Ghanem's killing has delayed plans for Berri to meet Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and majority bloc leader Saad al-Hariri to seek a compromise before the session.

Berri now plans to wait in his office at parliament until it is clear that not enough MPs have shown up for a presidential vote. He may then postpone the session until mid-October to give more time for agreement on a candidate acceptable to both camps.

''Tomorrow there will be consultations to push a mechanism for the presidential election,'' said Ibrahim Kanaan, a lawmaker loyal to Aoun, the opposition's only candidate so far.

Hezbollah MP Hussein Hajj Hassan said that with no consensus it was natural that opposition deputies would stay away to deprive the majority of any chance to elect one of its own.

The president must be a Maronite under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system. Several anti-Syrian candidates are running against Aoun. Army chief Michel Suleiman and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh are seen as possible compromise choices.

Reuters JK GC1535

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