Lesotho's prime minister accuses military of a coup, flees to South Africa

Lesotho's prime minister fled to South Africa Saturday, after the country's military seized and disarmed two police station in the tiny landlocked country. Tensions in Lesotho have been high since June and the coalition government has been fragile. 

Susan Walsh/AP
Motsoahae Thomas Thabane, Prime Minister of Lesotho arrives for a dinner hosted by President Barack Obama for the US Africa Leaders Summit, Aug. 5. On Saturday, Thabane accused the Lesotho military of a coup, and fled to South Africa, saying his life is in danger.

Lesotho's military seized and disarmed two police stations in the mountainous kingdom Saturday in an effort to secure the country, the defense force spokesman said.

But the country's Prime Minister Thomas Thabane said the military actions amounted to a coup, and has fled to South Africa, saying his life is in danger.

Speaking to the BBC, Thabane said he would return from South Africa, which surrounds Lesotho, "as soon as I know I am not going to get killed."

Gunfire rang out early in the morning in Maseru, the capital, because of an exchange of fire between the military and police and youths at one of the stations that injured one soldier and four policemen, military spokesman Ntlele Ntoi told The Associated Press.

"As we speak now, the situation in Lesotho, in the capital, is back to normal. It's business as usual," he said.

He 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 to avoid bloodshed, said the spokesman.

"The arms have been removed and they are in military custody. The military has returned to the barracks," he 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."

He said that the military did not know if the march will still take place Monday.

Ntoi said he had heard reports that radio stations had been down for a few hours. He said he could not say if they were down for technical problems or because of the military.

But Prime Minister Thabane told South Africa's eNCA television that the military actions amounted to a coup. He said something like this should not be happening in a democratic state, and that he will be meeting with South African officials. He said he expects South Africa to help his government restore law and order.

Lesotho has seen a series of military coups since independence in 1966. Thabane has headed a unity government since, but suspended parliament sessions in June amid feuding in his coalition. He denied accusations that his actions had undermined his government.

Thabane said the army had rendered the government "dysfunctional", an action that amounted to a coup.

"I have been removed from control not by the people but by the armed forces, and that is illegal," he told the BBC.

Bernard Ntlhoaea, a guard at the U.S. Embassy in Maseru, confirmed that gunfire was heard in the capital early Saturday.

"The military has been moving around from 3 o'clock in the morning, occupying police stations in Maseru and moving around to other districts," said Ntlhoaea. He said the military was armed and he saw at least one armored personnel carrier on the streets.

Political tensions have been high in the tiny kingdom that is completely surrounded by South Africa since June when there was a power struggle after Thabane suspended parliament to dodge a vote of no confidence.

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.

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 and military forces, under the authority of the South African Development Community. Political stability returned after constitutional reforms, and parliamentary elections were peacefully held in 2002.

Associated Press reporter Andrew Selsky in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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