Lesotho PM’s return uncertain

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IOL LESOTHO-COUP_0830_11 REUTERS A member of the Lesotho military looks on as he stands guard in front of an armed personnel carrier at the entrance of the army barracks in the capital Maseru. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

Maseru - Lesotho's exiled prime minister delayed a planned return on Tuesday to his country as gunfights rekindled tensions in the tiny mountain kingdom after an apparent coup.

Aides to Tom Thabane told AFP that security concerns could delay plans for the embattled 75-year-old to return to the mountain kingdom from neighbouring South Africa.

Thabane had intended to come home on Tuesday, 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 Maseru one of the country's top police officers said he would strongly advise Thabane not to return.

“Who is going to protect him, the police are not able to do that,” the officer said.

Thabane fled across the border before dawn on Saturday as troops surrounded his official residence and attacked key police installations, disarming officers.

Police say since then they have continued to come under attack from Lesotho Defence Force soldiers, acting under cover of darkness.

The latest assault came on Monday night, at the Police Training College, where officers reported coming under automatic weapon fire for around 30 seconds.

A top officer at the college, who asked not to be named, said the attack came shortly after the power was cut, an apparent coordinated move by the military.

The armed forces are led by Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, who Thabane attempted to sack before being forced to flee.

Lesotho intelligence officers have pointed to Kamoli and the deputy prime minister as being behind the coup attempt.

The commander's slated replacement Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who is also in exile after an assassination attempt, said the prime minister's return would be fraught if the military is not brought under control.

“Definitely we are going back home, but I can't say when and how,” Mahao told AFP.

“As long as those rogue elements are still running amok in the country, then there's no security for me, there's no security for the prime minister, there's no security for the general public.”

The military denies carrying out a coup and says its raids were to confiscate weapons from police stations destined for “political fanatics”.

With no law enforcement officers on the street, the potential for further violence is high.

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

It is not only civilians who are concerned.

Near 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 Africa regional bloc SADC send peacekeeping troops 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 the mountainous African kingdom to monitor political, defence and security developments.

South Africa surrounds the tiny 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 the “Rainbow Nation.” - AFP

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