By Bethuel Thai

Maseru - Lesotho's cabinet has called general elections for February 17, a move analysts said appeared to be designed to prevent further cracks in the ruling party governing the impoverished African kingdom.

A cabinet statement was issued late on Wednesday five days after Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili dissolved parliament on November 24.

Opposition parties voiced unhappiness with the date, saying it was too soon to organise and campaign properly in the country, a mountainous kingdom of about 1.9 million people completely surrounded by South African territory.

"We had hoped elections would be held by at least May since there are still pending issues that need to be resolved," said Thomas Thabane, leader of newly formed opposition All Basotho Convention (ABC).

"We were still engaged in negotiations with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to discuss preparations for elections," he said.

Mosisili's Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) has ruled the country for the past decade, but increasingly been accused of failing to deliver on promises of economic growth and jobs.

Lesotho, a constitutional monarchy since independence from Britain in 1966, is one of the world's poorest nations and has one of the highest rates of HIV infection, with nearly one in three adults believed to carry the virus.

Lesotho law requires that an election must be held within 90 days of parliament being dissolved. Voter registration will also end within seven days of the announcement, meaning the rolls will close by December 8.

The leader of opposition Basotho Congress Party (BCP), Sekoala Toloane, said numerous issues remained to be resolved, including whether the country had the wherewithal to print ballot papers.

A political analyst with the Transformation Resource Centre in Maseru, Mabusetsa Lenka said Mosisili had to call for snap elections to avoid further breakaways within the LCD, which now has just 61 parliamentary seats against 59 for opposition members.

Thabane, formerly the minister of communications, broke away from the LCD with 17 other members of parliament to form the ABC in October.

The IEC's director of elections Khothatso Ralitsie said officials would work to make the polls a success.