LESOTHO prime minister Thomas Thabane accused the army of staging a coup against him after fleeing to neighbouring South Africa.
Pretoria has condemned the military’s action and called for a peaceful settlement.
Early morning gunfire was heard yesterday in Maseru, capital of the small southern African kingdom encircled by South Africa.
Army units occupied police headquarters and surrounded the prime minister’s residence, residents and diplomats said.
Hours after the army’s move, the capital was reported to be quiet but it was not clear who was running the government of the mountainous state of 2 million people, where Prince Harry has in the past spent months and established a major charity.
Lesotho is so poor it has been described as “fourth world”. It has an average life expectancy of 41 and among the highest HIV/Aids rates in the world.
Thabane, who in June dissolved parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote amid feuding in his two-year-old coalition, said he had crossed over to South Africa because he feared for his safety.
“There was clearly an effort to launch a coup,” Thabane said, saying he was at his daughter’s home.
“We are taking concrete steps to nip it in the bud,” he added, saying the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) was addressing the situation.
South Africa, speaking on behalf of SADC, condemned the actions of the Lesotho military, which it said “bear the hallmarks of a coup d’état”. It called on Lesotho’s army commander to order his units back to barracks.
“Any unconstitutional change of government shall not be tolerated,” South African foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela told a news briefing in Pretoria.
Earlier, giving its version of events, the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) denied attempting a coup against Thabane, saying it had moved against police elements suspected of planning to arm a political faction, an army spokesman said.
“There is nothing like that [a coup], the situation has returned to normalcy … the military has returned to their barracks,” Major Ntlele Ntoi said.
He added the military “supports the democratically-elected government of the day”. Ntoi said one soldier and four police had been injured during the army action.
At least one witness reported police officers being detained by soldiers.
Diplomats in Maseru said the Lesotho army was mostly loyal to deputy prime minister Mothetjoa Metsing, who had vowed to form a new coalition that would oust Thabane. The police force back Thabane, the sources said.
Monyela said no individual or body had claimed to have taken over the government. “The situation is still unfolding,” he said.
The Commonwealth also condemned the reported coup. “There is zero tolerance in the Commonwealth of any unconstitutional overthrow of an elected government,” Commonwealth secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma said.
Thabane said he had fired the LDF commander, Lt Gen Kennedy Tlali Kamoli, replacing him with Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao. But the army spokesman said Kamoli was still in charge of the military.
Thabane said: “Commanders of armies are appointed by government, it is not up to them to say who is in control.”
He said he intended to return home, but did not say when. “That is something I will have to weigh,” he said.
Since independence from Britain in 1966, Lesotho has undergone a number of military coups.
In 1998, at least 58 locals and eight South African soldiers died and parts of Maseru were damaged during a political stand-off and fighting.