Strauss-Kahn faces seven counts of alleged sexual assault and could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted

Dominque Strauss-Kahn has resigned from his post as head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) amid allegations of sexual assault, triggering a global race for the top job.

European heavyweights are lining up for the role, with Christine Lagarde, the French foreign minister, seen as a major contender, although China has urged that the leadership reflect emerging markets.

On Thursday Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said a quick decision was needed on Strauss-Kahn's successor.

"I won't name any names today, but we will talk inside the European Union," Merkel told reporters in Berlin.

"It think it is of great significance, of course, that we find a quick solution."

Several contenders

The head of the Netherland's central bank said Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, would be a "fantastic candidate", while the prime ministers of 12 former Soviet republics have backed the candidacy of the Kazakhstan central bank chief.

Anders Borg, the Swedish finance minister, said he was impressed by Lagarde.

"One person whose name has come up is that of French finance minister Christine Lagarde and I must say that she has made a very good impression on me," he told SR public radio.

 Strauss-Kahn's arrest has dashed his prospects to run for the French presidency in 2012 [Reuters]

"She has been a real driving force in [the European Union finance ministers group] and she has been very important in the work of the Group of 20 - she has the influence and the experience," he said.

The European Commission said EU member states should agree on a candidate from the 27-nation bloc to replace Strauss-Kahn.

"We believe it's only natural to work to field a strong European candidate, while at the same time, of course, it's competence and not nationality that decides who is the best man or woman for the job," Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, Commission spokeswoman, said.

But Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China's central bank, said the next candidate must be considered for their "morality, ability and diligence".

"At the same time, the composition of senior management should better reflect changes in global economic patterns and represent emerging markets," he said.

Strauss-Kahn resigned late on Wednesday, ahead of a hearing in New York on his request for bail where his lawyers are expected to propose a deal for $1m in bail and home detention.

The IMF's executive board released a letter from the French executive in which the 62-year-old denied the allegations against him, but said he felt compelled to resign "with sadness''.

"It is with infinite sadness that I feel compelled today to present to the executive board my resignation from my post of managing director of the IMF," Strauss-Kahn said in his letter of resignation.

"To all, I want to say that I deny with the greatest possible firmness all of the allegations that have been made against me," the statement added.

Suicide watch

"I think at this time first of my wife - whom I love more than anything - of my children, of my family, of my friends.

"I think also of my colleagues at the fund; together we have accomplished such great things over the last three years and more.

"I want to protect this institution which I have served with honour and devotion, and especially - especially - I want to devote all my strength, all my time, and all my energy to proving my innocence."

The IMF's previous second-in-command John Lipsky will remain as acting managing director.

Strauss-Kahn, a leading French politician tipped as a presidential front-runner for 2012, was denied bail after being charged with sexual assault and attempted rape of a 32-year-old Manhattan hotel chambermaid.

He is under suicide watch in an isolated cell in New York City's Rikers Island jail, awaiting a grand jury decision on whether to indict him.

Meanwhile in France the opposition Socialist party has urged Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to pressure US authorities to ensure Strauss-Kahn is given a fair trial.

Harlem Desir, spokesman for the party, said the former IMF chief should be freed so he could "organise his defence in a decent fashion".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies