Mandela brokers talks to end conflict in Lesotho

THE PRESIDENTS of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana resolved yesterday to hold talks with the King of Lesotho, Letsie III, and the Prime Minister he deposed in a coup last week, Ntsu Mokhehle, to persuade them to find an amicable solution to the crisis besetting their country.

Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and Quett Masire said in a joint statement yesterday after meeting in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, that the talks would be held tomorrow in Pretoria.

The three leaders expressed 'deep regret' at the decision by the King - who faced no resistance from the army - to suspend the constitution and appoint a new cabinet. The royal coup, yesterday's statement said, 'cannot be condoned . . . It is not only a threat to Lesotho, but to the stability of all of the southern African states.'

Five people were killed last Wednesday in clashes between security forces and anti-monarchists, who took to the streets of Maseru, the capital, immediately after the announcement of the coup in a pre-dawn radio broadcast. Yesterday Maseru was a ghost town after virtually the entire population observed a general strike for the second day running in support of Mr Mokhehle, 75, whose Basutoland Congress Party came to power in March last year in the country's first democratic elections since 1970.

Yesterday's meeting in Gaborone was held at the behest of President Mandela who, while rejecting the option favoured by his predecessors of regional military intervention, has made it his policy towards neighbouring states, as well as for the rest of Africa, to encourage peaceful, political solutions.

'South Africa, as the model of the negotiated solution, wants to export the idea to the rest of the continent,' a South African Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday. Matters of principle aside, the spokesman said, military intervention was out of the question, because Lesotho posed no military threat.

Lesotho, described privately last week by a senior government official as 'a banana republic' in the manner of the old apartheid 'homelands', is of importance to South Africa for economic and geographical reasons. An old British colony which won independence in 1965, Lesotho - one and a half times the size of Wales, population 1.8 million - is landlocked within South Africa.

The country depends heavily on South Africa for electricity, supplies of all kinds and jobs: 40 per cent of the gross national product is provided by migrant workers, many of whom work on the mines in the Republic.

South Africa, however, depends to a significant degree on Lesotho - whose distingushing feature is its mountainous terrain - for its water.

Diplomats in Pretoria said yesterday that the threat of economic sanctions was one instrument of persuasion Mr Mandela might be tempted to use when he and his colleagues from Zimbabwe and Botswana attempt to convince the young Lesotho King, who is 34, to reinstate the deposed government.

The United States government has already cut off millions of dollars of aid to Lesotho and Britain and other Commonwealth countries have indicated that they will follow suit if King Letsie does not reconsider his position.