BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud hit back at his critics in parliament charging that their campaign to oust him was inspired by foreign powers and an affront to the country’s sovereignty. In an unprecedented open letter in the French-language L’Orient-Le Jour newspaper, Lahoud insisted that it was not his allies in Damascus who were in breach of a 2004 UN Security Council resolution demanding respect for Lebanon’s independence, but his critics’ pro-Israeli backers.

"Today, the supposed majority in parliament is trying, with the help of foreign powers, to divide the Lebanese people with the well-known goal of weakening Lebanon," the under-fire president wrote on Monday."These supposed champions of our sovereignty … began by taking control of parliament … then installed in cabinet a majority of ministers in their pay … and now they’ve launched a campaign of incitement and disinformation … in a bid to seize the sole institution they don’t control — the presidency."

Earlier this month, the main anti-Syrian alliance which controls parliament and heads the governing coalition, gave the president until March 14 to step down and launched a petition both in the legislature and across the country with the goal of securing one million signatures of support.

But Lahoud again insisted that he would stay in office, arguing that giving in to foreign-backed pressure to step down would itself breach the demand in Security Council Resolution 1559 for Lebanese sovereignty to be respected.

"My conscience impels me, despite your appeals and attacks and … the wishes of the foreign powers that are manipulating you, to retain the presidency which is a mission of service to the country," the president reiterated.

"It is therefore the current president who embodies the demand in Resolution 1559 that you so often cite."

Lahoud’s critics charge that a three-year extension to his mandate adopted in 2004 before the withdrawal of Syrian troops last April was illegitimate because it was approved at the bidding of Damascus.

Former colonial power France has boycotted the president ever since, and during a visit to Beirut last week US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly scheduled no meeting with him.

But Lahoud insisted that he was unfazed by the repeated snubs at the hands of the West.

"In the current circumstances, on the contrary, it is a source of pride for a president … who continues to hold his head high."

Lahoud’s entourage has stepped up its rhetoric against the Western powers in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, a source close to the president drew an indignant denial from Paris after claiming that  President Jacques Chirac had set up a working group under his chairmanship to plot Lahoud’s ouster.