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".
The two sides have been unable to agree on a presidential candidate despite intense French-led mediation efforts. The foreign ministers of France, Spain and Italy all went to Lebanon this week to push for a deal, and the fifth and latest attempt collapsed yesterday.
Hizbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran, and other opposition groups have boycotted ballots, leaving the 128-seat Parliament without the required two-thirds quorum to elect a president. Now the Parliament's Speaker, Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, has scheduled another session for Friday to give the factions more time to find a compromise candidate.
Leaders on both sides have pledged not to provoke each other. "We have no choice but to have a consensus," said Saad Hariri, the leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority. "It is not in Lebanon's interest that the [presidential] palace is left empty."
The Lebanese constitution states that the government should take on the President's powers if he leaves without a replacement, but Mr Lahoud had vowed not to hand over to the government, which he has considered unconstitutional since the departure of five Shiite Muslim members of the cabinet last year. Mr Siniora, backed by Washington, has declared his intention to assume presidential powers anyway.
Michel Aoun, the opposition Christian leader and presidential candidate, warned the government that "usurping the role of the presidency" would increase its "illegitimacy" adding that the opposition would "calmly confront" the situation.
Under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian.
Tuesday's US-sponsored Middle East peace conference is also believed to be a complicating factor. Government supporters have accused Syria of using its Lebanese allies to block a deal on the presidency until its demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan Heights have been met.