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.