BEIRUT (AFP) - Lebanon's new President Michel Sleiman appealed for unity as he was sworn in on Sunday in a first step towards defusing a political feud that threatened to plunge the nation into a new civil war. "Let us unite... and work towards a solid reconciliation," the former army chief said after being elected by parliament. "We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand-in-hand." "I call upon all of you, politicians and citizens, to start a new phase called Lebanon and the Lebanese... in order to achieve the interests of the nation," he said. Celebratory shots were fired into the air and cars horns hooted as crowds of people, cheering and waving Lebanese flags, poured into the streets of Beirut and Sleiman's hometown of Amsheet. The election was hailed by US President George W Bush who has given his staunch backing to the Sunni-led government in its 18-month standoff with the mainly Shia Hezbollah-led Opposition. Sleiman was elected by 118 votes in a much-delayed parliament session attended by Arab and Western dignitaries that followed a deal hammered out Wednesday in Qatar between the rival Lebanese politicians. Of the 127 MPs who voted, six cast blank ballots and several others voted for other politicians, including slain ex-premier Rafiq Hariri and several MPs killed since 2005. "This is a historic moment," said parliament speaker Nabih Berri. "I ask Allah help you succeed in steering the Lebanese ship to a safe haven... today no-one in the world can turn Lebanon into a killing field." The main challenge for Sleiman, 59, will be to impose himself as a neutral figure and reconcile the Western-backed ruling coalition and the Opposition, which is supported by Iran and Syria. After Sleiman was sworn in, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora resigned in line with the Constitution but will stay on in a caretaker role. Bickering between the two camps had left the presidency vacant since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud's term ended in November. Nineteen previous attempts to get lawmakers together to elect a successor failed. Sleiman vowed to protect the country's constitution, sovereignty and independence and urged the Lebanese to put their differences aside to bring about a new era. "I swear by Allah Almighty that I will respect Lebanon's Constitution and its rules and that I will protect the sovereignty of Lebanon and the security of its territory," he said. "In this new era, we will commit to a national plan ... in which the country's interests will be a priority over factional and sectarian interests." He added that Lebanon's weapons should only be directed at the enemy and not elsewhere, an implicit reference to the militant group Hezbollah which staged a brief armed takeover this month of mainly Sunni areas of west Beirut. He also said he would seek friendly and diplomatic relations with Syria. He said Lebanon needed to establish a defence strategy to address continued violations of its territory by Israel and to liberate the disputed Shebaa Farms territory. Sleiman stressed his commitment to UN resolutions and the international tribunal set up to try those behind the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri in a massive car bomb in February 2005.