Lesotho PM asks regional bloc to send peace force after 'coup'

AFP
Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane, pictured in 2007, tells AFP he will not reopen parliament, calling into question a South African-brokered peace deal
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Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) - Lesotho's exiled premier on Monday called on the southern African regional bloc SADC to send peacekeeping troops to his country, after claiming that the army had seized power in a coup.

Tom Thabane had fled to South Africa in fear of his life on Saturday. In his absence, a political rival told AFP on Monday that he had now taken over as acting prime minister of the tiny mountain kingdom.

"I am acting prime minister," public service minister Motloheloa Phooko said, citing "cabinet protocol" for his temporary appointment.

Phooko is a member of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), which is part of an acrimonious coalition government with Thabane.

The LCD has been accused of being in league with the military to oust Thabane, a charge both the party and the military brass deny.

At crisis talks in Pretoria, Thabane called on the 15-nation SADC to send peacekeeping troops, warning that the "situation is out of hand", his aide told AFP.

"You can no longer say you can only send a mission. You need an intervention of soldiers," said Samonyane Ntsekele.

The military on Saturday launched a deadly attack on police installations and Thabane's residence.

Since then it has been unclear who is running the country.

The military has largely returned to barracks, denying a coup and claiming that soldiers were conducting a security operation against police who intended to arm "political fanatics."

LCD leader and deputy prime minister Mothetjoa Metsing has denied any role in the operation and is currently at the talks in Pretoria.

Phooko said he would issue a statement to the nation later on Monday, describing the political situation as "fluid".

- 'Renegade general' -

A mass LCD demonstration planned for Monday has been cancelled at the military and police's request.

While traffic returned to the streets of Maseru, people remained nervous that splits in the army could prompt further violence.

When asked who is in charge of the military, acting prime minister Phooko said "that is a difficult question."

Intelligence sources have claimed that Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli orchestrated the coup when the prime minister removed him from his post and moved to appoint new prosecutors to investigate the deputy prime minister.

Kamoli was to be replaced by Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who fled the country on Saturday after a pre-dawn assassination attempt.

Speaking in Pretoria, Mahao told AFP that Kamoli had become a "renegade general."

"On the ground we have a situation that we have a renegade general who is refusing to step down," he said.

"There are a number of criminal acts conducted by sections under his command. He is afraid that when he is removed from office, the forces of justice will come into effect."

Mahao claimed that soldiers had also sought to seize police files relating to the deputy prime minister, the LCD's Metsing.

"The deputy prime minister is implicated in corruption charges. He is under investigation for that."

Attempted mediation in Maseru by Lesotho's King collapsed over Kamoli's participation, according to Anglican Archbishop of Lesotho Adam Taaso.

"It's difficult, even if we negotiate we might ourselves negotiating with a person with no locus standi," he said.

South Africa, which encircles Lesotho and has often had a decisive hand in the country's politics, was also trying to broker a "road map" out of the crisis.

Top diplomats from the Southern African Development Community meeting in Pretoria extended talks with leaders of the three ruling parties into a second day Monday.

Key among the LCD's demands are the re-opening of parliament, which the prime minister suspended over fears of the apparent coup.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the "military takeover" and called for respect for "democratic rule" ahead of the talks, according to his spokesman.

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