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Mass demo cancelled as Lesotho faces power vacuum

01 September 2014, 13:14

Maseru - A mass demonstration in Lesotho planned for Monday has been cancelled after an apparent coup left the country leaderless and prompted regional powers to hold a crisis meeting.

Maseru district police commissioner Mofokeng Kolo told AFP a mass rally planned by forces opposing Prime Minister Thomas Thabane had been scrapped.

"We received official word that the march has been postponed," Kolo said.

Thabane fled to South Africa in the early hours of Saturday morning, after being tipped off that the military was about to move against him.

The military denies staging a coup, a claim which few inside the country or abroad seem to believe.

After seizing weapons from key police installations and surrounding the premier's residence early on  Saturday, troops have returned to barracks.

'There is no coup in Lesotho'

The violence killed one police officer and injured four more.

Now with the prime minister in exile, the police disarmed and in disarray, and a battle for power raging inside the military, it is unclear who is running this small mountainous kingdom.

Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing - a rival of Thabane whose party was behind the planned demonstration and who is accused by opponents of being implicated in the coup - on Sunday left the country for talks in South Africa.

He told AFP that under the constitution the minister of public service, a member of his party, Motloheloa Phooko, was now in charge.

"There is no coup in Lesotho," he insisted.

Media reports indicated that Phooko may also be out of the country.

South Africa, which encircles Lesotho and has often had a decisive hand in the country's politics, has appeared to back Thabane and has warned against the military or its allies seizing power.

Top diplomats from the Southern African Development Community meeting in Pretoria extended talks into a second day Monday, according to South Africa's foreign ministry.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the "military takeover" and called for respect for "democratic rule" ahead of the talks, according to his spokesman.

 'I heard gunshots'

Intelligence officials have pointed the finger of blame at Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli for the attacks, seemingly acting after the prime minister tried to remove him from his post.

Kamoli's supporters are also accused of being behind the attempted assassination of his replacement, Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, on Saturday morning.

Shortly before dawn Mahao's redbrick bungalow on the outskirts of Maseru was sprayed repeatedly with automatic gunfire, as he, his wife and three sons aged five to 15 were at home.

"At around four o'clock I heard some gunshots," his wife Mamphanya Mahao told AFP, describing how she ushered her sons to a safe place in the house and waited in silence.

"The gunshots went on for about 30 minutes," after which her husband fled the property and possibly the country. Only a family dog was killed.

After the attack junior soldiers told AFP they were not now sure who their commander was.

'People are worried'

Lesotho defence force spokesperson Ntlele Ntoi denied the military was involved in the attack on Mahao and said the actions on Saturday were designed to prevent the police from arming political "fanatics."

The military, led by Lieutenant General Kamoli, is seen as broadly supportive of the deputy prime minister's Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party.

The LCD has been in an ever-more dysfunctional coalition government with Prime Minister Thabane since 2012.

The prime minister suspended parliament in June, forcing divisions in the ruling coalition to the fore.

Amid the depended turmoil at the weekend, Maseru's residents stocked up on food and basic necessities.

"People are worried what will happen, because 'no work, no pay'," said fruit and vegetable vendor Kamele Pakisi. "There is no stability."

There were concerns that the anti-government demonstration planned for Monday would bring a new chapter of violence.

"We are not afraid of today, we are just afraid of tomorrow," said Mphasa Chonela.

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