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Belgian king to abdicate crown

| Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 9:24 p.m.

BRUSSELS — Weighed down by the years, Belgium's King Albert announced on Wednesday that he will hand the throne of his fractious kingdom to his son, Crown Prince Philippe, on the country's national holiday, July 21.

The move had been rumored for weeks and will end nearly two decades of steady reign over a country increasingly torn apart by political strife between northern Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking southern Wallonia.

Belying his frailty and 79 years of age, Albert stood upright and confident as he delivered the nationwide message to the cameras. Behind him, a huge portrait of Leopold I, the nation's first king in 1831, looked down on him.

Albert said his age and health no longer allow him to carry out his functions as he'd want to. ‘‘I would not fulfill my duties,” he said, ‘‘if I clung at all cost to my position in these circumstances.”

Belgium has had six kings since independence, and Albert is the first to voluntarily abdicate the throne.

But he was the second European monarch to do so in barely two months. Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped down in April after a 33-year reign in favor of her eldest son, who was appointed King Willem-Alexander.

‘‘After a reign of 20 years, I believe the moment is here to hand over the torch to the next generation,” Albert said in a nationwide address carried by all of Belgium's major broadcasters.

When Albert's brother, King Baudouin, died in 1993, it was widely expected that Philippe would take the throne instead of his father.

Yet he was considered unprepared for the task at hand. Even now, at 53, the silver-haired Philippe has plenty of critics who see him as awkward and reclusive.

‘‘He was always faced with the dictum, ‘He's not up to it.' It still weighs on him,” historian and author Marc Reynebeau said.

Married to Princess Mathilde, the couple has four children.

The kingdom has increasingly become a divided nation, with the 10.5 million Belgians split into distinct Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons.

Belgium is enjoying something of a political lull as it prepares for potentially bruising nationwide and regional elections next spring, with the question of greater division expected to be at the heart of debates.

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