Gunfire and power cuts rekindled tensions overnight in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, as the mountain nation awaited the possible return of its exiled prime minister following an apparent coup.
An aide to Basotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane said that the 75-year-old was unlikely to return to the country yesterday as planned, 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.
Thabane had fled across the border to South Africa before dawn on Saturday as troops attacked key police installations and surrounded his official residence.
The military denies carrying out a coup and says its raids were to confiscate weapons from police stations destined for “political fanatics.”
After three days of relative calm, swathes of Maseru were plunged into darkness on Monday evening.
The sound of sporadic automatic gunfire echoed off the mountains from undetermined locations.
Tensions between the military and the police mean there is no security presence on the streets, which emptied completely after dark.
“We don’t know what is happening. They are just fighting for their own things, they don’t want to say anything to us,” said Lineo Mattadi, a 28-year-old upholstery factory worker.
Fearing a power vacuum and further violence, the US ordered the families of its diplomats to leave, in case land borders and airports are closed.
By Maseru’s main military base nervous and heavily armed young soldiers questioned passersby, fearing foreign intervention could be at hand.
That seems unlikely. Thabane’s request that the southern African regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), send a peacekeeping force has been rebuffed.
However, the 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.
The body is also to send an observer team to the mountainous African kingdom to monitor political, defense 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.”
Thabane will probably face a vote of confidence when parliament returns — one he will likely lose — but his biggest challenge in the short term will be to end doubts about who controls the army.
When asked on Monday who controls the military, acting Basotho prime minister Motloheloa Phooko said: “That is a difficult question.”
Intelligence sources have claimed that Lesotho Defence Forces Commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli orchestrated the coup when ordered by Thabane to relinquish his command.
The commander was to be replaced by Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who fled the country on Saturday after a pre-dawn assassination attempt.
His home was sprayed with bullets, forcing his wife and three young sons to hide, terrified for their lives during the 30-minute ordeal.
Speaking in Pretoria, Mahao labeled Kamoli “a renegade general who is refusing to step down.”
Mahao claimed that Kamoli was reluctant to relinquish his post for fear of prosecution.