Ongoing unrest puts question mark on Lesotho PM’s return

Gunfire and power cuts rekindled tensions in Lesotho’s capital of Maseru overnight, as the expected return to Lesotho of the exiled prime minister Thomas Thabane appeared uncertain following an apparent coup.

An aide to Thabane told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that the 75-year-old prime minister was unlikely to return to the country on Tuesday as planned, after regional mediators brokered a road map to ease the country’s political crisis. 

“We are still in Johannesburg. There is a possibility that we may not arrive in Lesotho today,” Samonyane Ntsekele said in a phone interview, without giving details on the delay.

Gunfire in Maseru
Thabane fled across the border to South Africa before dawn on Saturday, as troops attacked key police installations and surrounded his official residence. The military denies carrying out a coup and said its raids were to confiscate weapons from police stations destined for “political fanatics”.

After three days of relative calm, swathes of Maseru plunged into darkness on Monday evening. The sound of sporadic automatic gunfire echoed off the mountains from undetermined locations. Ntsekele said he was unaware of reports of gunfire that rang in Maseru overnight. 

Tensions between the military and the police mean there is no security presence on the streets, which emptied completely after dark. “We don’t know what is happening. They are just fighting for their own things they don’t want to say anything to us,” said Lineo Mattadi, a 28-year-old upholstery factory worker. 

Fearing a power vacuum and further violence, the United States ordered the families of its diplomats to leave, in case land borders and airports are closed.

Request for SADC troops
At Maseru’s main military base, nervous and heavily armed young soldiers questioned passers-by, fearing foreign intervention could be at hand. That seems unlikely.  Thabane’s request that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) send a peacekeeping force has been rebuffed. 

But SADC did force the country’s rival parties to agree to a deal that will see Thabane return and Parliament reopen, after two days of talks in Pretoria. SADC will also send an observer team to Lesotho to monitor political, defence and security developments. 

South Africa surrounds the small country, and is keen to make sure it does not fall into lawlessness. Lesotho’s vast dams provide much of the drinking water for Johannesburg and Pretoria, and any weapons needed in a full-scale conflict would have to flow through South Africa.

Military control
Thabane will probably face a vote of confidence when parliament returns – one he will likely lose – but his biggest challenge in the short-term will be to end doubts about who controls the army. 

When asked on Monday who controls the military, acting prime minister Motloheloa Phooko told AFP: “That is a difficult question.” Intelligence sources have claimed that Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, commander of the Lesotho defence forces, orchestrated the coup when ordered by Thabane to relinquish his command. 

The commander was to be replaced by Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who fled the country on Saturday after a pre-dawn assassination attempt. His home was sprayed with bullets, forcing his wife and three young sons to hide, terrified for their lives during the 30-minute ordeal.

‘Renegade general’
Speaking in Pretoria, Mahao labelled Kamoli “a renegade general who is refusing to step down”. Mahao claimed that Kamoli was reluctant to relinquish his post for fear of prosecution. 

“There are a number of criminal acts conducted by sections under his command. He is afraid that when he is removed from office, the forces of justice will come into effect,” he told AFP. Mahao claimed that soldiers had also sought to seize police files relating to the deputy prime minister, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy’s Mothetjoa Metsing, who was part of Pretoria deal. 

“The deputy prime minister is implicated in corruption charges. He is under investigation for that.” But military spokesperson major Ntlele Ntoi insisted there was no doubt who was in command of the armed forces. “Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli is the one who is in charge,” he said categorically, stating that Mahao faces a court martial for conduct unbecoming an officer. – AFP

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