Belgium has interim government after record wait

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Belgium's parliament gave its backing to a new interim government yesterday, ending for now a six-month crisis that prompted speculation the country might split into its Dutch- and French-speaking regions.

Parliament backed by 97 votes to 46, with one abstention, a team led by Guy Verhofstadt, the ex-prime minister who will now govern for a further three months. A political deadlock after June's general election meant Belgium has been without a government for a record 196 days.

"My objective now is to increase trust and to allow a dialogue between the communities," Verhofstadt told parliament shortly before the vote.

The interim government has pledged to take urgent measures to combat rising fuel and food prices, and to prepare for institutional reforms aimed at easing persistent tensions between the country's two main linguistic groups.

Verhofstadt is due to hand over on March 23 to Yves Leterme, the controversial Flemish conservative who beat him in the election but who failed to form a coalition with French-speaking parties that fiercely opposed his plans for greater devolution.

The political deadlock aggravated the divide between affluent, self-confident Flanders in the north, and the poorer French-speaking Wallonia region in the south. There were also signs that the uncertainty had started to worry investors.

Surveys in recent months have suggested that anything up to a half of the Flemish population wanted a split. However a poll published last week found a solid majority of Belgians want the country to stay together.

"We live in a fantastic country of hard workers and people of good sense," said Verhofstadt of the 177-year-old country sandwiched between France and the Netherlands.

He called on the government to prepare a draft 2008 budget with the aim of eliminating its small deficit - put at between 0.4 and 0.7 percent of national output - as soon as possible.