By Sadie Gray
The outgoing President of Lebanon has declared a state of emergency and ordered the army to take responsibility for security as the country descends into a political vacuum with no resolution in sight.
Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his presidential term last night with no successor, following days of acrimonious wrangling over a candidate between the Western-backed government and the pro-Syrian opposition.
"The dangers of a state of emergency exist and have been fulfilled. [The President] entrusts the army with the authority to maintain security on all Lebanese territory and put all armed forces at its disposal," he said.
The declaration from Mr Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, was immediately rejected by the government, which would have had to ratify it for it to stand. "It has no value and is unconstitutional and consequently it is considered as if it was not issued," said a spokesman for the government of Fuad Siniora, the Prime Minister.
Later, a government statement said the cabinet continued "to shoulder its responsibilities and exercise its full authority".
The army has been on alert for days amid fears that the country's political turmoil could explode into violence between supporters of the rival factions. It has sought to remain neutral and is under the control of the widely respected General Michel Suleiman.
Hundreds of troops in tanks and jeeps were deployed along roads into Beirut and around the Parliament, but despite rising tension, the capital was calm last night except for a few groups of Lahoud supporters letting off fireworks.
Leaving the presidential palace at midnight last night, Mr Lahoud said: "The most important thing is that my conscience is clear and Lebanon is fine."
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said last night that he was "deeply concerned at the fragility of the situation". He urged "all parties to maintain calm as well as to further intensify efforts to reach a compromise as soon as possible". …