Lebanese presidential election delayed to Nov. 21

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BEIRUT, Nov 10 (Reuters) Lebanon's presidential election has been postponed from November 12 to November 21 to give rival leaders more time to break a deadlock over a consensus candidate, the parliament speaker said in a statement today.

The delay provides perhaps one final chance for a deal but also indicates the difficulties facing domestic and international efforts led by France to resolve political crisis that is threatening the stability of Lebanon.

The parliamentary session to elect a president had already been postponed twice. The term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud expires on November 23.

Electing a president is regarded as vital to resolving the year-old dispute that pits the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the opposition led by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah.

The impasse has pushed Lebanon into its worst political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war and many Lebanese fear a failure to reach a deal could lead to two rival governments and bloodshed.

Speaker Nabih Berri's statement said he had decided to delay the vote ''to allow for more consultations on a consensus over the election of a president of the republic that symbolises the unity of the nation''.

Berri, also a Shi'ite Muslim opposition leader, and leader of the anti-Syrian majority coalition Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni, issued a joint statement calling on Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir to convene a meeting of Maronite leaders.

They said the meeting should come up with a list of compromise candidates to run in the election.

The Maronite leaders are fiercely divided over the election with both camps fielding their own candidates. The president should be a Maronite in line with Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system.

FRENCH MEDIATION A French envoy visited Beirut on Friday and held separate talks with rival leaders in a last-ditch effort to help resolve the standoff.

Claude Gueant, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's chief of staff, left Lebanon last evening after talks with Sfeir, Berri, Siniora and Hariri. He said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner would visit Lebanon next week.

Political sources said Gueant had achieved little progress but expected him to also return to Beirut next week.

In a meeting with Sarkozy this week, US President George W Bush said he backed the French president's efforts to bring about a democratic election before Lahoud's term expires.

Opposition MPs first boycotted a parliament session in September to prevent the required two-thirds quorum for a vote.

Leading members of the governing coalition have said their MPs, who have a slim parliamentary majority, have the right to gather in Lahoud's final 10 days in power to elect a president without the two-thirds quorum. Hezbollah has said such a move would be tantamount to a coup.

Gueant and Sarkozy's top diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte, met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this week, the highest ranking French officials to visit Syria since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri.

Leading anti-Syrian figures blame Syria for the killing.

France has been a vocal Western critic of Syria's alleged meddling in Lebanon's affairs. Syria denies both accusations and says stability in neighbouring Lebanon is in its interest.

REUTERS SZ RAI1845

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