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Lebanese Christian leader pulls out of presidential race, endorses bitter rival

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BEIRUT — A Lebanese Christian leader pulled out from the presidential race on Monday and endorsed the candidacy of his long-time rival in the latest political maneuvering aimed at resolving Lebanon's 20-month political deadlock.

The withdrawal by Samir Geagea at a press conference was touted as an attempt to close ranks and unite Lebanon's Christian community, which has long been divided between supporters of Geagea and his rival, Michel Aoun.

The two men, both presidential candidates, were angered along with other Christian politicians late last year when former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni, nominated politician Sleiman Frangieh for president without consulting them.

Lebanon's top post has been vacant since May 2014 as Lebanese politicians failed to agree on a consensus president. According to the country's power-sharing system, the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

Still, it's unclear whether Aoun, an 80-year-old ex-army commander, can garner enough parliament votes to become president. He is an ally of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah group, but is opposed by many other sides in Lebanon's fractious politics.

"I announce after much studying and thought ... that we have adopted the candidacy of General Michel Aoun for presidency in a move that carries hope of getting out of our situation toward a more secure and stable life," Geagea said, at the joint press conference with Aoun.

He called on his allies to overcome divisions and endorse Aoun "for the higher Lebanese national interest."

Lebanon faces multiple challenges — from spillovers of Syria's war next door, soaring tensions among the Lebanese divided over sectarian loyalties, to an economy and resources stretched to the limit by the influx of Syrian refugees.

As army commander, Aoun fought pitched battles against Geagea's Lebanese Forces militia in the late 80s and 90s. Thousands of people were killed in the fighting.

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