South Africa said Saturday that Lesotho's army appeared to have staged a coup d'etat against Prime Minister Tom Thabane (pictured) and said that such an unconstitutional change of government would not be tolerated by regional powers.
Thabane said on Saturday that he fled in fear of his life after soldiers seized power in a coup, despite military denials that it had overthrown the tiny mountain kingdom's government.
Powerful neighbour South Africa and the Commonwealth backed Thabane's claims, with Johannesburg warning the Basotho army that such action "shall not be tolerated".
"I have been removed from control not by the people but by the armed forces, and that is illegal," Thabane told the BBC.
"I came into South Africa this morning and I will return as soon as my life is not in danger," he said.
"I will not go back to Lesotho to get killed."
Lesotho's military seized control of police headquarters and the premier's residence in the capital Maseru in the early hours of Saturday, but later withdrew, sports minister and leader of the Basotho National Party, Thesele Maseribane told AFP.
"The (military) commander said he was looking for me, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister to take us to the king. In our country, that means a coup," he said.
But military spokesman Major Ntele Ntoi denied the claims, saying soldiers had merely disarmed police before returning to their barracks.
"There has never been and there will never be a coup in Lesotho perpetrated by the military," he told South Africa's ANN7 television news channel.
"The military embarked on an operation to disarm the police, who, according to the intelligence gathered by the military, were arranging to arm some of the political sides in Lesotho," he said.
Police officers locked up and left their headquarters after the military raid, a witness said.
Heavily armed security forces were driving police cars through the city in the afternoon, according to an AFP correspondent.
An AFP photographer was pursued and his camera smashed after taking pictures of soldiers.
Radio stations, phone networks 'jammed'
The putsch comes just months after a power struggle in the landlocked country that describes itself as the "kingdom in the sky".
Maseribane said people with guns were roaming the city but that he had no information about casualties, accusing the military of jamming radio stations and phone networks.
He accused Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, leader of coalition partner Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), of involvement in the move to seize power.
"There is some intelligence that he is part (of the coup)," he said.
An aide who answered Metsing's phone told AFP the deputy premier was at a funeral service outside Maseru and unaware of the events.
The LCD is part of a shaky coalition which has governed since elections two years ago.
But, increasingly frustrated with Thabane, the party vowed months ago to form a new government and oust the premier in the nation that is entirely surrounded by South Africa.
In response, Thabane suspended parliament -- with the blessing of King Letsie III who has ruled the constitutional monarchy since 1996 -- allowing him to dodge a no-confidence vote.
After emergency talks in June, the coalition parties, including Thabane's All Basotho Convention (ABC), agreed to continue working together.
'Hallmarks of a coup'
Regional heavyweight South Africa issued a strong response to the military's actions, saying they bore "hallmarks of a coup d'etat".
Foreign affairs spokesman Clayson Monyela warned that such unconstitutional change of government shall not be tolerated."
Pretoria saw military intervention as "last resorts", he added. "Let's give diplomacy a chance."
The Commonwealth urged the military to return power to the government.
"It is imperative that the military take urgent and immediate steps to return the country to civilian rule and return to the barracks," Commonwealth secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma said in a statement.
Maseribane said he had fled his residence after receiving a warning about an impending putsch, and refused to divulge his whereabouts.
"There's still a lot of danger. People who have arms are running around Maseru," he said.
Two clerics who were part of the team that mediated the coalition deal in June said they were rushing to the capital.
"Pray for our country, we don't know what is happening," Lesotho Evangelical Church head Simeon Masemene told AFP.
Lesotho is no stranger to political crisis.
In 1986, South Africa's apartheid government instigated a coup to prevent the country being used as a base by the African National Congress and other activists.
In 1998, following election riots, South Africa and Botswana embarked on an ill-fated invasion that reduced the capital to rubble.
In recent decades there has been a series of attempted political assassinations.
Date created : 2014-08-30