South African troops fail to quell coup

SMOKE WAS still pouring from freshly torched and looted buildings in downtown Maseru last night, with occasional gunshots punctuating the rumble of distant mortar fire.

It was little more than 12 hours since the South African army had intervened to restore law and order to the capital of tiny Lesotho. But its first day of foreign combat since the end of apartheid appeared to have gone badly wrong, with key objectives - including the royal palace and the main army barracks on the edge of town - still in the hands of opposition demonstrators and Lesotho's mutinous army.

While South African troops continued to pound the Makoanyane army barracks with mortar fire as dusk fell, mobs of looters and stone-throwing youths were left with the run of the town.

A spokeswoman for the South African National Defence Forces, which had hoped to overawe resistance in a bloodless swoop, said three of its soldiers had been killed in fighting with the Lesotho Defence Forces and 11 injured.

A source in the Lesotho police, which has remained loyal to the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Phakalitha Mosisili, said two of the South Africans were killed along with 13 members of the Lesotho army early in the day after a South African task force tried to secure the strategic Khatse Dam in the mountainous interior. He confirmed there were other casualties, but could not say what the death toll was.

A Maseru hospital director, Piet McPherson, said five people were dead on arrival at his hospital and 49 were treated for injuries, including 29 gunshot wounds.

As its troops went into action, the South African government announced it was intervening at the request of Lesotho's constitutional monarch King Letsie III to restore the rule of law. The operation was authorised by the Home Affairs minister, Chief Mangosutho Buthelezi, who is standing in for President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki while both are out of the country.

The operation was officially carried out under the aegis of the Southern African Development Community, but an expected troop contingent from Botswana had still not arrived by yesterday evening.

Lesotho, a mountainous and deeply impoverished Commonwealth country about the size of Belgium, has effectively been without government in recent days as opposition demonstrators shut down government offices and state radio to protest the alleged rigging of general elections held last May.

Two weeks ago, soldiers guarding the palace fired on police who were attempting to disperse a crowd of opposition demonstrators camped outside, killing one police officer. Junior officers in the traditionally pro- opposition army subsequently mutinied against their government-appointed commanders and forced them to resign. In recent days, most government ministers are believed to have fled the country.

Yesterday's fighting began shortly after dawn when 600 South African troops crossed the Caledon River in armoured vehicles from neighbouring South Africa, supported by six helicopters. According to a civilian security officer working with the United Nations, the SADC troops took up positions at the city's two army barracks and the royal palace, and shooting broke out soon after.

According to a Western security source close to the operation, the South Africans appeared to have taken control of the city at midday but then began to withdraw from key objectives, including the palace, leaving the city to the mob. As night fell, angry opposition demonstrators continued to ring the palace, vowing revenge for South Africa's "invasion". A police source said he believed the king was still trapped inside, although it was not clear if he was being held hostage.

A Western security expert - who asked not to be named - was scathing about South Africa's decision to intervene with such a small and apparently badly directed force. "I don't think they came with definite objectives other than to disarm the army and take the palace, and they came with insufficient numbers to overcome what resistance they met. When looting broke out they said it was nothing to do with them, it was up to the Lesotho police to deal with it but there simply weren't enough of them."

The British High Commissioner, Peter Smith, said Maseru's 100 British residents had been advised to stay at home, but several had taken refuge in his house, while others were attempting to join a convoy at the US embassy awaiting a South African armoured escort.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Youth Support Workers Glouceste...

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Primary Teaching Jobs Available NOW-Southport

£80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Due to an increase in dema...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London