Lebanon army tightens security in president crisis

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BEIRUT, Nov 20 (Reuters) Lebanon's army tightened security in Beirut today as rival leaders remained split over who should replace the pro-Syrian president before his term ends this week.

Failure by politicians to agree on a new head of state would deepen a year-long political crisis and could result in two rival administrations. Many fear violence could break out in a country still rebuilding after its 1975-1990 civil war.

A parliamentary vote scheduled for tomorrow to elect President Emile Lahoud's successor is likely to be postponed until Friday, the last day of his term, to give the rival leaders more time to agree, political sources said.

The fate of the presidency is the latest stage in a power struggle between the Western-backed governing coalition, which is deeply opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon, and the opposition supported by Damascus.

The rivals have accused each other of arming supporters.

Soldiers tightened security in and around Beirut, manning roadblocks and deploying armoured vehicles around government buildings, a senior security source said. ''The army has started security arrangements,'' he said.

''Any attack on security is national treason and any weapon directed internally is a treacherous weapon,'' army chief General Michel Suleiman said in a statement to soldiers to mark Independence Day which falls on Thursday.

Suleiman told the army to pay no attention to arguments ''which have almost split the country into scattered parts''.

The army is one of the few state institutions that has continued to function effectively during a power struggle that has paralysed government.

SECURITY TIGHTENED Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a key opposition figure, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri have failed to agree on any of the names for president proposed by the head of the Maronite church. Hariri left for a trip to Moscow early today.

The head of state must be a Maronite according to the Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system. Political sources say the governing coalition wants MP Robert Ghanem for the post while the opposition supports former minister Michel Edde.

France, which backs the governing coalition, said yesterday its mediation efforts were being thwarted. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner continues his talks in Beirut today.

Speaking in Tehran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Syria and France were working towards the same goal, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported.

Hezbollah, a powerful member of the opposition, warned of a ''catastrophic picture'' without a deal. ''Constitutional life would be gone with the wind,'' Mohammed Raad, leader of the group's parliamentary bloc, told al-Manar TV yesterday.

Agreement on the presidency is needed to guarantee a two-thirds quorum for the vote in parliament, where the governing coalition holds an absolute majority of three.

Some members of the ruling coalition say it may call its lawmakers to elect a president if there is no deal. The opposition has said such a move would be unconstitutional.

The president has previously suggested he could hand his powers to army chief Suleiman -- a step that the anti-Syrian majority faction would reject as unconstitutional.


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