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Monaco's Prince Albert assumes royal authority

He's fabulously rich, athletic and unmarried, with receding hair and no heir.

He's on the cusp of becoming the sovereign prince of Monaco, the small enclave in southeastern France known for its roulette wheels, beach thongs and secretive bankers.

Prince Albert, 47, took over the royal powers of the tiny principality yesterday as the acting head of the Grimaldi dynasty. His father, Prince Rainier, 81, lies near death and is incapable of ruling.

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Monaco's Crown Council empowered Albert "to exercise regency powers in the name of the sick sovereign Prince."

But palace spokesman Armand Deus was careful to say that Prince Rainier is still the sovereign and could recover royal authority if he recovers from lung, heart and kidney problems that have left him in intensive care for 10 days.

Albert is the only son of Prince Rainier and his late wife, Grace Kelly, who traded Hollywood stardom for the life of a princess in an exclusive Mediterranean playground for the international wealthy and celebrity set.

Preferring to live out of the scorching spotlight, unlike his glamorous sisters Caroline and Stephanie, Albert has devoted himself to sports. He is a five-time bobsledding Olympian and has headed Monaco's Olympic committee for a decade.

Albert promised in a statement to devote himself "with strength, conviction and passion" to his new position.

The Grimaldis have ruled the country since the end of the 13th century. But Albert has neither married nor had children, which once raised concerns about the continuation of the dynasty.

That was put to rest in 2002, when the constitution was changed to allow Caroline, his 48-year-old sister, to succeed him. She could then be succeeded by her oldest son, Andrew Albert Pierre, 20.

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Albert studied political science in the United States and France, and served in the French Navy. Soccer was a passion, and he has a black belt in judo.

His father, Europe's longest-serving monarch, was hospitalized March 7 with a chest infection. Two weeks later, the palace said he had been moved to intensive care and placed on a respirator.

The most recent statement from his doctors said the Prince remained in stable condition and was having kidney dialysis.

Yesterday, Albert said, "The state of health of our father remains very fragile."

After Princess Grace died in a car crash in 1982, Prince Rainier filled Monaco with memorials to her. He never remarried.

"He never really got over her death. It was an irreparable loss," said Philippe Delorme, his French biographer.

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With reports from Reuters and AP

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