01 сентября 2014 12:56

Regional powers to hold Lesotho crisis meeting


 Regional ministers were set to told talks to resolve the political crisis gripping Lesotho on Sunday, as the country's fugitive prime minster remained in South Africa after an apparent coup, AFP reports.

 Regional ministers were set to told talks to resolve the political crisis gripping Lesotho on Sunday, as the country's fugitive prime minster remained in South Africa after an apparent coup, AFP reports.

Top diplomats from the Southern African Development Community were set to meet in Pretoria, the South African government said, as it remained unclear who was in control of the small mountain kingdom.

Prime Minister Tom Thabane was forced to flee across the border to South Africa after what he has labelled a "military coup" on Saturday -- a charge the armed forces deny.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the "military takeover" and called for respect for "democratic rule" ahead of the talks, according to his spokesman.

"This is a meeting called by South Africa... to discuss the latest developments in Lesotho," foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela told AFP.

The crisis in Lesotho began in the early hours of Saturday morning, when soldiers seized weapons from key police installations and surrounded the premier's residence.

Thabane fled across the border to South Africa before the troops arrived thanks to a tip-off. One police officer was killed and four more were injured in the clashes.

Intelligence officials told AFP Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli was behind the attacks, seemingly acting after the prime minister decided to remove his command.

Kamoli's supporters are also accused of being behind the attempted assassination of his replacement, Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, on Saturday morning.

Shortly before dawn Mahao's redbrick bungalow on the outskirts of Maseru was sprayed repeatedly with automatic gunfire, as he, his wife and three sons aged five to 15 were at home.

"At around four o'clock I heard some gunshots," his wife Mamphanya Mahao told AFP, describing how she ushered her sons to a safe place in the house and waited in silence.

"The gunshots went on for about 30 minutes," after which her husband fled the property. Only a family dog was killed.

 Dysfunctional coalition 

The military, led by Lieutenant General Kamoli, is seen as broadly supportive of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party, which has been in an ever-more dysfunctional coalition government with Prime Minister Thabane since 2012.

The party's leader, Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, has denied involvement in the coup.

He also flew to South Africa for talks with President Jacob Zuma on Sunday, saying that a minister from his party, Motloheloa Phooko, was now in charge of the government according to the constitution.

"There is no coup in Lesotho," he insisted.

But as life returned to Lesotho's streets, it was not clear who was in charge of this beautiful but poor kingdom of two million people.

The police were struggling to regroup, with the police headquarters still abandoned and most officers deciding to remain in hiding.

The military has been confined to barracks, with some junior soldiers telling AFP they are not sure whose command to follow.

Amid the political turmoil, Maseru's residents stocked up on food and basic necessities.

"People are worried what will happen, because 'no work, no pay'," said fruit and vegetable vendor Kamele Pakisi. "There is no stability."

Worshippers filled the city's cathedral as normal, but many feared for what lies ahead, convinced this spasm of political violence was not yet over.

There is concern that a mass anti-government demonstration planned for Monday could bring a new chapter of violence.

"We are not afraid of today, we are just afraid of tomorrow," said Mphasa Chonela.

The police have called for the march not to go ahead, but critics question whether that is an attempt to protect the prime minister from criticism.

Meanwhile the international community, and Lesotho's neighbours, are trying to fashion a brokered peace.

The United States voiced concern at the security clashes and called for "peaceful dialogue" in the country.

Lesotho has suffered a series of coups since independence in 1966, and the political temperature in the country has been rising rapidly in recent months.

The prime minister suspended parliament in June, forcing divisions in the ruling coalition to the fore.

In 1998 South Africa launched an ill-fated invasion of Lesotho when the "kingdom in the sky" was in the midst of another political crisis, reducing the capital to rubble.

by Andrew BEATTY

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