Basildon Peta, Peter Fabricius and Kristen van Schie
Johannesburg - The South African government warned it would not tolerate what it called a coup by army commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli in Lesotho on Saturday but declined to say if it would send troops into the country to restore the elected government.
At least one policeman was confirmed killed when the army stormed police stations and attacked the home of Prime Minister Tom Thabane, forcing him to flee to South Africa.
Pretoria said on Saurday it was consulting other regional governments about how to respond.
Some sources said South African troops had been placed on standby near the Lesotho border but these reports were not officially confirmed. Government spokesman Clayson Monyela said at a press conference that President Jacob Zuma would call a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) security organ which he chairs, possibly as soon as Saturday night to decide on further action. Thabane said in an interview he had asked Zuma to intervene militarily and that he feared for his life if he returned without protection.
Although the Lesotho defence force later denied it had effected a coup and no one claimed to have taken over the government, Pretoria said “the activities of the Lesotho Defence Force thus far bear the hallmarks of a coup d’etat.”
Monyela warned “that such unconstitutional change of government shall not be tolerated”, but added that South Africa wanted “to give peace a chance” by attempting to negotiate a return to democratic governance before turning to the “last resort” of military action.
Many nervous Basotho, including ministers and senior government officials, streamed into South Africa while supermarket shelves emptied quickly as citizens engaged in panic buying, uncertain of what the future holds for them, particularly in light of the power vacuum Kamoli’s actions have created.
“I have asked President Zuma for troops to help us with the situation in the country,” Thabane said in an interview with Independent Newspapers yesterday. “President Zuma is now seized with the matter as chairman of the SADC organ on defence and security…,” he added, blaming his army commander for “leading a mutiny to try and overthrow a legitimate government”.
Lesotho’s immediate future remained uncertain after Thabane said he had fired Kamoli as commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) but Kamoli himself insisted that he remained in charge of the armed forces.
Lesotho has been in turmoil amid infighting in the coalition government and after Thabane suspended Parliament for nine months on June 10 to forestall a bid by his coalition partner, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) of deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing to push for a no confidence vote against him to topple his government and to bring back former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili of the Democratic Congress into power.
The apparent coup began when soldiers loyal to Kamoli stormed the main police stations in armoured vehicles and disarmed policemen at about 3am on Saturday, before some headed to State House to try and find Thabane who had already fled South Africa.
Apparently, Thabane was due to announce Kamoli’s dismissal as army commander on Saturday and replace him with Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao. It was that decision by Thabane to fire Kamoli, which seemed to have precipitated Kamoli’s pre-emptive strike on Saturday.
Kamoli’s soldiers moved armoured vehicles into the main general headquarters of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) and all other key police stations, disarming police.
One policeman was killed and several injured, according to the police’s Senior Inspector Lebona Mohloboli. However, information on injuries and deaths was sketchy as the top brass of the police, including Commissioner Khothatso Tsoona, had all vanished into hiding yesterday.
Kamoli’s decision to target the police seemed to have been aimed at severely weakening Thabane as Tsoona, whom Thabane had appointed early this year and the rest of the police force are loyal to Thabane, who is also minister of police while Kamoli is largely seen as loyal to former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili of the Democratic Congress, who initially appointed him to the helm of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).
Other key police stations ransacked by the army, included Ha Mabote Police Station, the headquarters of the police’s special operations unit and special support unit, two elite police units, and the Maseru Central Station.
All prisoners awaiting trial at the stations were set free in the chaos that ensued.
Several policemen had been seized by the army although three were later released by the Military Police. It is not clear how many were still in army custody.
Meanwhile other soldiers attacked Thabane’s official residence and also the home of Brigadier Mahao, opening fire with apparent intention to kill the man whom Thabane was due to announce as the new commander of the LDF.
Mahao escaped into hiding.
Even though the army had left the police stations at the time of going to print after confiscating arms, these were largely deserted as police officers were too scared to man them, creating a major security vacuum in the process. Police officers were also too scared to wear their uniforms.
Kamoli vowed to remain in his seat as army commander on Saturday night, creating room for further chaos.
“As far as I am concerned… I am still the army commander and in full control of all Lesotho Defence Force instruments. You can even come by my office now at Ha Ratjomose Barracks and see for yourself that I am still in office and in full charge,” said Kamoli in an interview with journalists from Lesotho’s Sunday Express newspaper .
He refused to talk about his army’s activities and whether he had seized power for himself or not, only preferring to say his only aim in giving the interview is to debunk a radio announcement by Thabane’s spokesman, Thabo Thakalekoala, that he had been sacked as army chief.
However LDF spokesman Major Ntlele Ntoi denied there had been a coup, insisting the army’s actions were merely aimed at disarming policemen whom he accused of plotting to arm youths from Thabane’s All Basotho Convention to enable them to disrupt a march planned by Metsing’s LCD on Monday.
It seems Kamoli’s strategy is not to seize power for himself but to facilitate a takeover by Metsing and Mosisili at the expense of Thabane.
In the absence of the prime minister, a power vacuum has been created as Kamoli has refrained from commenting on his exact intentions.
Thabane told the Independent Newspapers he had decided to fire Kamoli because of “actions by the army commander that offended the rule of law”.
This referred to Kamoli’s refusal to hand over to the police eight soldiers who were earlier this year accused of bombing houses belonging to Thabane’s girlfriend, Liabiloe Ramoholi, and Police Commssioner Tsooana soon after the latter’s appointment. Tsooana and Kamoli don’t see eye to eye.
It is suspected Thabane was the target of the attacks as he was known to frequent his girlfriend’s house.
Thabane also attributed the coup to the rifts in his coalition and his anti-corruption drive that has netted the Deputy Prime Minister Metsing and several other government ministers and officials.