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King accepts resignation of Belgian government

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium King Albert II accepted the government's resignation Monday after negotiations failed to resolve a long-simmering dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians over a bilingual voting district in and around Brussels, the country's capital.

The king had waited since last week to see if last-ditch talks could keep the coalition government of Prime Minister Yves Leterme together. But late Monday, it became clear the differences between the linguistic groups were too deep. Elections could now be called in early June.

"I regret that the necessary dialogue to achieve a negotiated settlement did not produce the result we hoped for," Leterme said in a statement.

The Royal Palace said that "the King has tasked the government to continue in a caretaker capacity."

Belgian governments have a long tradition of teetering on the brink of linguistic collapse. For half a century, they have brokered ever more complicated compromises to keep the country from falling apart at the expense of giving the linguistic groups more autonomy. Yet the endless bickering has not stopped the nation of being among the most prosperous in Europe.

Rarely, though, has a dispute been as intractable as this one. Amid the global financial crisis, many have warned that such an impasse could sap international economic confidence in the country.

And the crisis comes at an inopportune moment: Belgium will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1.

Leterme highlighted the work that had been achieved to shield the country from the global economic crisis, reform the judiciary and prepare for the EU presidency, when the Belgian prime minister will be for six months one of the most visible European politicians.

"This work needs to be continued," said Leterme.

Speculation had been that the five coalition parties would keep trying to break the stalemate at least until Thursday, when the next session of parliament was planned, but that did not happen.

"We wanted a negotiated solution but it was quickly clear that there was no political will," said Alexander De Croo, head of the Dutch-speaking Liberals.

The current coalition took office March 20, 2008, following a political impasse over a related linguistic spat that lasted a record 194 days.

Linguistic disputes rooted in history and economic disparities have long dominated politics in this country of 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones.

Belgium is divided into Dutch-speaking northern Flanders and French-speaking southern Wallonia and bilingual Brussels in between. The language rules determine which language is used on everything from mortgages and traffic signs to election ballots and divorce papers.

In 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled the bilingual Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde voting district illegal because it violated the separation of Dutch- and French-language regions. The district includes Brussels, which is officially bilingual, but also encompasses 20-odd towns in Dutch-speaking Flanders around the capital.