Robbed and stoned on the streets of capital

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The Independent Online
THE BROWN armoured hulls of South African army Mamba and Casspir personnel carriers were a reassuring presence as we crossed the bridge that joins Lesotho's capital Maseru to the outside world.

If it was able to hold such force in reserve, southern Africa's best- equipped and best trained army was surely already imposing its will on the lawless streets of Maseru, seen burning in the middle distance.

Our feeling of security lasted about 900 yards, until we came across the first burning road block and our first opposition youths, fortifying their courage with canned lager freshly looted from a nearby store. Politeness got us past - that and the fact that a South African police officer had advised us to prize the South African plates off our car before we came across.

"South Africa is our enemy," shouted a young man clutching a miniature Basotho fighting stick. "We will stop them here."

One of his comrades stretched across the one lane of road that was still passable, a heroic gesture of resistance. Or perhaps he was drunk.

Two miles further, the Kingsway, a busy shopping street when I visited a week before, was a mess of rubble and discarded loot. Smoke still poured from burning stores and office buildings, and sporadic shooting could be heard in the distance. Middle-aged women in party hats clambered out of shop fronts clutching bulging bags, while outside the palace - still occupied by opposition demonstrators and (it was reported) a very nervous King Letsie III - a mob hurled abuse at two South African armoured personnel carriers as they moved back towards the frontier.

This was the last we saw of the South African military yesterday, even though a spokeswoman later announced that its 600 troops had secured and stabilised the capital. But driving out towards Makoanyane barracks on the edge of town they could still be heard, dropping sustained mortar fire on the defending members of the mutinous Lesotho Defence Force.

The idea behind the South African incursion was to mount a quick, clean operation to restore the rule of law and defend Prime Minister Phakalitha Mosisili's government - however dubiously re-elected last May - against what amounted to an opposition and military coup. But at dusk two miles from the bombarded barracks, as a crowd of "opposition youths" stoned our car, forced it off the road and robbed us, we concluded that something had gone badly wrong.