Belgium heads toward new political crisis

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A deep political crisis loomed in Belgium Wednesday after a party threatened to pull out of government if talks between the French and Dutch-language communities are not finalised in 24 hours.

"A deadline is a deadline, there are 24 hours left," said Enterprise Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, from the Flemish liberal Open VLD party, part of a five-party coalition led by Prime Minister Yves Leterme.

Leterme is due to face parliament on Thursday and it had been hoped that a deal would be concluded well before then.

The kingdom's leaders and factions have held late night talks all week in an effort to end the standoff, part of a row over the devolution of federal powers which has plagued Belgium since the last elections in June 2007.

A mediator -- former premier Jean-Luc Dehaene -- charged by King Albert II to pave the way for an agreement conceded late Tuesday that he had been unable to find the compromise needed to rally all parties.

Flanders, Belgium's Dutch-speaking region accounting for some 60 percent of the 10.5 million population, has stepped up its efforts to seek more powers to reflect its prosperity.

It resents subsidising the less affluent, French-speaking Wallonia region to its south. Belgium also has a small German-speaking minority.

Brussels, where around one million people live, is officially a bilingual region but lies in the heart of Flanders, where Dutch is the only official language.

The row centres on what rights to apply in the Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde suburbs of the capital, where around 100,000 French-speakers live.

These Flemish-run communities on the outskirts of the city have been trying to dissuade French-speakers from moving in, largely by demanding that they speak Dutch, but also by toughly enforcing rules on public housing.

© 2010 AFP

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