Siniora assures Lebanese, cabinet takes powers

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BEIRUT, Nov 24 (Reuters) Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora assured Lebanese today there was no cause for alarm and said his cabinet was assuming executive powers in the absence of a president for the first time in nine years.

The mandate of President Emile Lahoud expired at midnight (0330 IST) yesterday after parliament failed to find a successor acceptable to both the anti-Syrian ruling coalition and the opposition led by pro-Syrian Hezbollah.

''When the presidency is vacant, the powers of the presidency devolve to the cabinet ... which is the legitimate and constitutional cabinet,'' Siniora told a news conference after meeting the Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir.

''There is nothing to worry about... Our natural concern is to work on how to ... complete the presidential election. None of the Lebanese, with myself at the forefront, will accept that there not be a president for the Republic.'' But the opposition, led by the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah, says the country no longer has any recognised executive. It has considered the government illegitimate ever since Shi'ite ministers resigned last year.

The dispute reflects the regional conflict between the United States and its allies on one side and the alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah on the other.

The political void had no immediate impact on the streets of Beirut, where shops and cafes opened as normal and traffic circulated freely. The army, which deployed in force for a session of parliament yesterday, relaxed its controls.

The United States, the United Nations, the European Union and conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are expected to recognise the cabinet's authority.

Before relinquishing the presidency, Lahoud ordered the army to take charge of security, saying the country ran a risk of descending into a state of emergency.

But Siniora said there was no state of emergency and the army had been carrying out its duties for a long time.

MAJORITY Yesterday, parliament failed to elect a president before Lahoud's term ended, prompting speaker Nabih Berri, an opposition leader, to postpone the vote for the fifth time and set November 30 as the date for another attempt.

The delay means the presidency, always held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, will be vacant for at least a week.

Key members of the majority faction, including the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, kept the political temperature down yesterday by saying they remained in favour of finding a consensus candidate for the presidency.

But the group has also said it may elect a president outside parliament using its absolute majority, a move the opposition says would be tantamount to a coup because the vote would not take place in parliament or with a two-thirds quorum.

Christian leader Samir Geagea, a prominent member of the ruling coalition known as the March 14 movement, said the majority reserved the right to use that option.

''At the end of the day if ... there's no other solution, we have one red line, which is leaving the president's chair empty,'' he told a news conference.

Geagea said his group was working on obtaining approval of invoking the absolute majority option from the rest of March 14 and from Patriarch Sfeir, who says that a two-thirds quorum in parliament is needed to elect a president.

''We are working on securing approval, otherwise we would have gone to the 50 + 1 option now,'' said Geagea, adding that an election was needed quickly, without Syrian influence.

''Siniora's government staying is not the solution, the solution is holding presidential election as soon as possible ... whatever happens we will not allow Syria to control our political fate.'' REUTERS RJ KN1902

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