Belgian king to abdicate aged 79
Belgium's King Albert is to abdicate in favour of crown prince Philippe.
The announcement had been rumoured for weeks and ends nearly two decades of steady reign over a fractious kingdom, one which has been increasingly torn apart by political strife between northern Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking southern Wallonia.
Frail at 79, King Albert will be handing over the throne on July 21 to his son Philippe, who is 53.
He said his "age and health" no longer allow him to carry out his functions as he would want to. "After a reign of 20 years I believe the moment is here to hand over the torch to the next generation," Albert said in an announcement carried by all major broadcasters. "Prince Philippe is well prepared to succeed me."
Belgium has had six kings since it came into being in 1830; Albert is the first to voluntarily abdicate from the throne.
In August Albert would mark his second decade on the throne of the kingdom of 10.5 million people. The nation celebrates independence day on July 21 and many have said that could be an ideal day to hand over the largely ceremonial post.
Belgium is enjoying something of a political lull as it prepares for potentially bruising nationwide and regional elections next spring. Any abdication at that stage would be practically impossible.
"His most important gift is that he provided a sense of stability" as Flanders and Wallonia drifted apart, historian and author Marc Reynebeau said.
At a family level, life has not been as smooth. After he succeeded his devoutly Roman Catholic brother Baudouin in 1993, Albert became embroiled in a major royal scandal when he had to acknowledge the existence of an out-of-wedlock daughter, Delphine Boel, and suffered a major crisis in his marriage with Queen Paola.