Lesotho counts cost of intervention

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MASERU'S MAIN tourist office, three kilometres from the border with the Orange Free State, is the first thing visitors encounter on the way from South Africa. Built in the shape of a giant Basotho hat - a conical woven sombrero with a little wicker bobble on top - the thatched building is the town's most distinctive landmark.

Or at least it was until the early hours of yesterday morning, when a mob burnt it down. The savage rage that ripped the heart out of Maseru, capital of the tiny mountain kingdom, caught most people by surprise, including it seems the South African government.

South Africa's first military intervention since the end of apartheid in 1994 has proved extremely costly. Its forces were mopping up stubborn resistance near a Lesotho military compound yesterday while soldiers from Botswana fanned out in the kingdom's gutted capital to stop looting.

Scattered gunfire and explosions still echoed through the capital and many shops were still smouldering from fires set on Tuesday, when 600 South African troops crossed the border to quell a military uprising.

The military command in Pretoria said eight South African soldiers had died in the operation, with 17 wounded. But a senior officer in Maseru said 10 were killed at the military compound in Tuesday's fighting.

When South Africa sent 600 troops across the border it was planning a quick, clean operation to end seven weeks of mounting chaos and disarm the mutinous Lesotho Defence Force, a longstanding obstacle to political progress. By yesterday evening, the Lesotho Defence Force, minus 40 of its own dead, was still swapping mortar fire with the South Africans at Makoanyane army base on the outskirts of town.

For the second day running civilians were left to loot the city centre unhindered, while gangs of teenaged "opposition youths" set fire to public and private buildings along the Kingsway, hijacked cars and tried to rob and kill passing journalists. Meanwhile Major Ben van Zyl of the South African National Defence Forces was assuring the media that the situation was in hand.

"Contingency measures are in place to stabilise Lesotho," he said. "We will make sure that loss and damage of civilian property is minimal."

Built on a rocky hillside overlooking the city, the forecourt of the Lesotho Sun Hotel offered a panoramic view of Maseru's disgrace yesterday afternoon. Four hundred yards below, hundreds of Basotho civilians were swarming in and out of the Metro Cash and Carry and settling down in the car park to sort through their loot.

As the number of triumphant "affirmative shoppers" gradually subsided, a puff of smoke appeared from beneath the building's tin roof, followed soon after by a burst of flame. Heavy black smoke spiralled off into the pall already hanging over the city.

The looters seemed unfazed by the machine gun fire and dull explosions that had erupted just around the corner on the main Kingsway street, where half a dozen South African armoured vehicles had appeared and were exchanging shots with unseen adversaries.

Fresh smoke began billowing from a building further down the street. It seemed like a good time for Major van Zyl's contingency plans to be put into effect.

In the car park of the Queen Elizabeth II hospital on the Kingsway, Mr Pelele Letsoela watched volunteer Red Cross workers unload the third civilian corpse brought to the hospital in less than an hour, a young woman killed in crossfire near the Makoanyane barracks.

A respectable farmer and supporter of the opposition Basotho National Party, he was enraged at the destruction which, he said, South Africa had wreaked on the city.

Another man present, dressed in a working man's blue overalls, looked sadly over at the row of gutted shops across the road. "This is too sad," he said. "Where will the money come from to put all this back? Who will want to build again in Lesotho?"