SA special forces foil Lesotho coup

31 August 2014 - 02:38 By Sibongakonke Shoba, Sam Mkokeli, Monica Laganparsad and Gabi Mbele

A Pre-dawn operation by South African special forces foiled an attempted coup in Lesotho yesterday.

A group of South African soldiers helped Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane to flee his home in Maseru just before the arrival of military mutineers who were determined to force him out of office.

Thabane was taken across the border to Ladybrand in the Free State, where he is under the protection of the South African government.

Trouble had been brewing in the landlocked mountain kingdom ever since Thabane, who enjoys close relations with the controversial South Africa-based Gupta family, dissolved the Lesotho parliament in June amid rumours that MPs were planning to pass a vote of no confidence against him.

Yesterday's coup attempt appears to have been sparked by Friday's removal of army chief Lieutenant-General Kennedy Kamoli from office by Lesotho's King Letsie .

Lesotho's army denied this was a coup. Spokesman Major Ntele Ntoi said the army's actions were part of an operation to disarm police who had been preparing to provide weapons to political parties.

According to Thabane's spokes-man, Thabo Thakalekoala, the king's decision "did not sit well with" Kamoli and other Lesotho Defence Force soldiers.

At about 2am yesterday, soldiers attacked several police stations and stormed the prime minister's residence. "Fortunately, the prime minister had already fled to South Africa," said Thakalekoala.

The Lesotho police are seen as loyal to Thabane, but the army is closely aligned to Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing.

Thabane and Metsing are in a coalition government that is under threat following a bitter power struggle between the two.

A minister in Thabane's government said Metsing was facing arrest in connection with corruption claims in the home affairs and local government department.

Sport Minister Thesele Maseribane said at a meeting attended by Thabane and security chiefs on Tuesday that Metsing threatened to lead a march tomorrow if a probe against him was not called off. But a police commissioner told the meeting that there was prima facie evidence against Metsing.

"He [Metsing] said no one was going to arrest him because the special forces were protecting him."

Maseribane said Kamoli's decision to provide Metsing with protection without Thabane's approval led to his removal on Friday.

He was replaced by Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao.

Gunfire was heard in Maseru, the country's capital, as army units took over police stations and radio and TV stations and surrounded the prime minister's residence and the homes of diplomats.

The district commissioner of Maseru, Senior Superintendent Mofokeng Kolo, late last night said four police stations came under attack by the Metsing-aligned defence force between 2am and 5am on Saturday.

He said Mahao's home also came under attack.

"They shot and killed his dog. Three of his vehicles were damaged. He's alive and kicking," said Kolo.

He said the army seized more 200 weapons from the police stations and this included pump action, self-loading rifles, and police officers' official pistols.

Maseribane, who claimed to live not far from Thabane's house, said Kamoli-led troops arrived at the prime minister's house in armoured vehicles.

But by then, Thabane had long fled the country with South Africa's assistance.

According to South African diplomats with intimate knowledge of the operation, the South African special forces - who are based in Phalaborwa, Limpopo - had moved into Lesotho on Friday afternoon amid fears of military trouble.

They were accompanied by diplomats sent there to try to defuse tensions after Kamoli's ousting.

Ntoi said that the soldiers had returned to their barracks and Thabane was still considered to be the prime minister.

The South African government had been trying to broker a deal in Lesotho for more than two months following Thabane's suspension of parliament. According to local diplomats, South Africa's attempts failed when Thabane reneged on his undertaking to reopen parliament.

Earlier this week, tensions ran high when the police refused permission to Metsing's Lesotho Congress for Democracy to hold a protest march in the capital city.

Although South African authorities would not confirm the army's involvement in Thabane's escape, the prime minister's spokesman said it "was not surprising" that South Africa had assisted.

"If there is any kind of conflict, all Southern African countries come together to resolve that impasse. South Africa's involvement is not surprising," said Thakalekoala.

Yesterday afternoon, Thabane called the BBC in London from his safe house in Ladybrand to inform the international community that he was still in charge.

"Yes, the South African government is involved in many ways. They are our mostimmediate neighbour - we share responsibilities with them to not only share things, but to pursue programmes of good governance and the present South African government ... sees no problem with my asking them to look into the problem," he said.

He earlier told eNCA that he believed the ousted army chief had led the attempted coup.

"I think the commander himself has been leading this from the evidence that I have. He has been personally leading this."

Ntoi confirmed that the raid was led by the army commander Kamoli and his deputies.

Department of International Relations spokesman Clayson Monyela said in Pretoria yesterday afternoon that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and South Africa would "not tolerate" unconstitutional changes of government. He said the army's actions had "the hallmarks of a coup". He called on Mahao to immediately order his troops back to barracks. "We say that any problems in Lesotho must be solved through political dialogue," he said.

Monyela would not reveal Thabane's whereabouts. He said South Africans planning to visit Lesotho during this time "have to consider their travels based on the current situation".

Although the SABC reported last night that the troops had returned to their barracks, Ntoi remained defiant, saying Kamoli was still the army's commander.

He claimed Mahao was suspended following a charge of behaviour unbecoming of an officer.

"Maaparankoe is still facing charges before the military court martial and pending that case there is just no way he can be promoted," he said.

Ntoi said only two police stations were raided.

However, an officer at the Central Police Station said when she arrived for her shift change yesterday morning, the station was surrounded by soldiers.

She said police officers were disarmed and their armoury was raided for weapons.

"We don't know why this is happening. No one has given us no response as to why we are being harassed by the military. It wasn't just two police stations. We were in touch with the other stations and they confirmed that they were also under siege at the same time," the officer said.

The woman said that the station would be closed by 8pm yesterday because "they have taken our guns".

A prominent South African businessman with interests in Lesotho said some drivers of delivery vehicles with South African number plates were requested by members of the Lesotho Defence Force to return to South Africa because such vehicles had been prime targets for looting during previous coups in the country.

He said Maseru was generally quiet yesterday, except for the fact that police stations had been taken over by the defence force and the police were not allowed to perform their duties.

Another South African with businesses in Maseru said his shops were operating normally in the morning.

The towns of Clocolan and Ficksburg on the South African side of the border were reported by residents to be operating as usual for a Saturday at month's end, but there was some unusual activity in Ladybrand, just across the border from Maseru.

According to Kaye Durrant, chairwoman of the Mantsopa Residents' Association in Ladybrand, the town's emergency services were ordered to be at full alert from 2pm.

"There are also a lot of South African government vehicles and vehicles with diplomatic number plates, as well as a lot of buses from Bloemfontein."

She said as many as 18 South African government vehicles were counted at one guest lodge in Ladybrand. South Africa has a big role to play in managing the conflict in Lesotho because it chairs the SADC's defence and security co-operation organ.

The political crisis in Lesotho was one of the key issues discussed at the SADC meeting held at Victoria Falls early this month. - Additional reporting by Stephan Hofstatter

shobas@sundaytimes.co.za

mkokelis@sundaytimes.co.za

X