( AP ) - Lebanon's political tumult intensified Friday as President Emile Lahoud said the country is in a "state of emergency" and handed security powers to the army hours before leaving office without a successor. The rival, pro-Western Cabinet rejected the move.
Lahoud's announcement created new confusion in an already unsettled situation, which many Lebanese fear could explode into violence between supporters of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government and the pro-Syria opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime during nine years in office, was a long-sought goal of the government installed by parliament's anti-Syria majority, which has been trying to put one of its own in the presidency.
Hezbollah and other opposition groups have blocked legislators from electing a new president by boycotting ballot sessions, leaving parliament without the required quorum.
The fight has put Lebanon into dangerous, unknown territory: Both sides are locked in bitter recriminations, accusing the other of breaking the constitution, and they are nowhere near a compromise on a candidate to become head of state.
The army command refused to comment on the developments. The military, under its widely respected chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, has sought to remain neutral in the political chaos.
Lahoud was expected to step down when his term expired at midnight, leaving the presidency vacant after parliament failed again to convene earlier Friday to vote on a successor.
Even before the president's vague announcement, the military was in place to guard against the two sides' supporters taking the conflict to the streets. On alert for days, hundreds of soldiers stood with tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps in the area around the downtown parliament building as well as on roads leading into Beirut.
The capital was largely calm, save for some fireworks from Lahoud supporters.
Lahoud's vaguely worded statement wasn't a formal declaration of a state of emergency, but he enflamed tempers with his reference to a "state of emergency" in Lebanon.
"Because a state of emergency exists all over the land as of Nov. 24, 2007, the army is instructed to preserve security all over the Lebanese territory," the presidential spokesman, Rafik Shalala, said.
The constitution requires the Cabinet to approve any state of emergency, and Saniora's government quickly rejected the announcement.
"It has no value and is unconstitutional and consequently it is considered as if it was not issued," said a government spokesman, who asked not to be identified because an official announcement had not yet been made by the prime minister.
Later, a government statement said the Cabinet "continues to shoulder its responsibilities and exercise its full authority."
Shalala argued Saniora's position didn't matter because his government was not constitutional - the position voiced by Lahoud and the opposition since the Cabinet's five Shiite Muslim members quit last year.
Further complications awaited the expiration of Lahoud's term at midnight. Under the constitution, the government is supposed to take on the president's powers if he leaves office without a replacement. Lahoud had vowed not to hand his authorities to Saniora - and his reference to a state of emergency might have been an attempt to escape doing so.