Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane (L) arrives at Maseru border gate under heavy security on September 16 2014
Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) - Lesotho's feuding political parties have agreed to hold elections in February -- more than two years early -- in a bid to exit a crisis that has seen a coup attempt and running battles between the security forces.
"National general elections will be held towards the end of February 2015," said mediator and South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The exact date for the polls, originally set for 2017, will be set by King Letsie III, he added.
Just two years ago, Lesotho was hailed as a beacon of democracy in southern Africa, carrying out a peaceful handover of power, then forming one of Africa’s rare coalition governments.
But that disintegrated amid constant bickering, corruption allegations, political violence and an August 30 attempted coup.
Thursday's agreement will also see parliament reconvene on October 17 after being shuttered by Prime Minister Tom Thabane in June as he looked poised to lose a no-confidence vote.
Ramaphosa said the reconvened parliament would be limited to passing a budget and preparing the ground for elections, apparently ruling out a vote of no confidence.
Seated beside Ramaphosa during Thursday’s declaration, the 75-year-old Thabane kept his eyes cast downward almost throughout and offering no comment.
On August 30, Thabane was forced to flee his country to neighbouring South Africa, as the military attacked several police stations.
"This is a difficult time for the coalition partners," said Rajendra Prasad, who has advised the troubled tripartite coalition on behalf of the Commonwealth of Nations.
"No party of government that has to go to premature elections enjoys it. But what has been found here is a way forward, which is no mean feat."
Major questions remain about the role of the armed forces.
Lesotho Defence Forces commander Tlali Kamoli is being investigated for treason and murder for his alledged role in the coup. He refuses to step down.
On Thursday, Ramaphosa called for the de-politicisation of the security services, and for its members to do their bit to help the tiny mountain kingdom out of crisis.
"We call upon the leadership of the security arms of this country, in the forms of the police and the army, to do everything they can in the interests of the people of Lesotho and desist from having conflicts between themselves."
He added that police officers and military advisors from the Southern African bloc SADC would remain in the country until after the vote.
The latest conflagration came on Tuesday, when at least two policemen were reportedly shot and injured in a gunfight with the military –- the second such shootout in two weeks.
Ramaphosa declined to specifically address what to do about the "renegade" Kamoli and his loyalists.
Thabane and several other top officials continue to be protected full-time by heavily armed South African police.
"We'll be looking at the security situation broadly," Ramaphosa said. "But we have to be given a chance to do so."