Lesotho's prime minister is in South Africa to meet with leaders of his country's coalition government and South Africa's president to discuss recent unrest in the mountainous kingdom, a Lesotho official said. Prime Minister Thomas Thabane has said that he fled to South Africa after an alleged attempt by the military to take over the country of about 2 million people. Lesotho's Defense Forces deny any attempt at a coup although they say the military exchanged gunfire and disarmed two police stations in Lesotho's capital, Maseru, on Saturday.
Lesotho's Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing is running the government while Thabane is out of the country, according to the constitution, said Foreign Affairs Minister Mohlabi Kenneth Tsekoa. Political tensions have been high between the two and within the coalition government in the tiny kingdom since June when Thabane suspended parliament to dodge a vote of no confidence. Thabane's All Basotho Convention party and Metsing's Lesotho Congress for Democracy formed a coalition with a third party after 2012 elections and since then conflict has been simmering.
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma and Namibia's president are meeting with Lesotho's coalition leaders, including Metsing, on Sunday to discuss the unrest and to work toward resolution, said Tsekoa. The countries are a part of the 15-nation regional group, the Southern African Development Community, which has taken action to resolve conflicts in Lesotho before.
There was little evidence of the conflict Sunday in Maseru, where people went about their daily lives. Lesotho's defense forces spokesman Ntlele Ntoi said the military had gathered intelligence that the police were going to arm factions participating in a demonstration planned for Monday by one of the coalition parties, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy. The military disarmed police in the capital, Maseru, to avoid bloodshed, Ntoi said.
An exchange of gunfire between the military, youths and police injured one soldier and four policemen, Ntoi said. Radio stations were also off for hours on Saturday.
"The arms have been removed and they are in military custody. The military has returned to the barracks," Ntoi said, denying reports of any coup attempt. "We are not in a position now or in the future to stage a coup. All we do is to carry out our mandate to secure our country and property."
But Lesotho's prime minister told South Africa's eNCA television that the military actions amounted to a coup. He said he did not give permission for the action and that something like this should not be happening in a democratic state. South Africa's Department of International Relations and Co-operations said the actions bore the hallmarks of a coup d'etat, and called for the military to allow the democratically elected government to return to business.
The U.S. said it is "deeply concerned" by the clashes and "calls upon government officials and all parties to remain committed to peaceful political dialogue and to follow democratic processes in line with the Lesotho Constitution and principles of the rule of law, according to a State Department statement from spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
South Africa's ruling African National Congress called upon the African Union and the Southern African Development Community "to monitor the unfolding developments in Lesotho and continue to work with the people of that country to maintain law, order and democracy."
The demonstration planned for Monday has been called off, according to Lesotho's news agency. The landlocked country's first coalition government was formed in 2012 after competitive elections that ousted the 14-year incumbent Pakalitha Mosisili, who peacefully stepped down from power. The coalition has since been fragile. Lesotho has seen unrest in its past and has seen a number of military coups since gaining independence from Britain in 1966. The constitutional government was restored in 1993, after seven years of military rule. Violent protests and a military mutiny in 1998 came after a contentious election prompted intervention by South African military forces. Political stability returned after constitutional reforms, and parliamentary elections were peacefully held in 2002.