Belgium's King Albert II has abdicated in favor of his son Philippe. The monarch spoke with a message of support for his heir and pleaded for unity in the linguistically and politically divided country.
Belgium welcomed its seventh king to the throne on Sunday, as Albert signed the abdication act ahead of a swearing-in for his son Philippe.
The 79-year-old monarch formally signed away his powers as the largely ceremonial head of state of the country in front of a crowd of some 250 invited dignitaries at the royal palace in Brussels.
Speaking at the ceremony, he praised his heir's abilities. "Philippe, you have all the qualities of heart as well as the mind needed to serve our country well in your new responsibilities," Albert said.
The king added his wish that Belgium - which has experienced a growing political and linguistic split between French-speaking Wallonia in the south and the more affluent Flemish speaking Flanders in the north - retain its cohesion as a nation.
"Keep working steady for a united Belgium," Albert said. "In this way you will be the makers of peace and in a position to better defend the well-being of all."
Justice Minister Annemie Turtelboom read aloud the abdication act in French, Flemish and German before it was signed by Albert.
Philippe took his oath before parliament shortly afterwards. The 53-year-old took the vow in the country's three official languages while dressed in full military uniform.
A full military parade had been planned for the afternoon, even ahead of Albert's announcement that he would stand down, with the ceremony coinciding with Belgium's national day.
The royal family is viewed as a key force in uniting the country, with Albert having played a major role in ending a political crisis in 2010 to 2011, when the country went for a record 541 days without a government.
The House of Belgium has ruled the country of 11.5 million people since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830.
rc/tj (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)