By Michael J. Jordan
MASERU, Lesotho – A top Lesotho official has distanced his government from a Minister’s assertion last week that four Lesotho soldiers were arrested in neighboring South Africa, while on their way to “finish off” two of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s bodyguards – as they lay recovering from a recent shootout.
“At my disposal, I don’t have any concrete information to confirm or not to confirm these arrests,” Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka said Wednesday.
Lesotho is two-plus weeks from Feb. 28 elections intended to restore peace and security, after a coup attempt convulsed the tiny African kingdom last August.
The Feb. 1 shootout in broad daylight between Lesotho soldiers and Thabane’s two bodyguards sparked fears in a country plagued by bouts of election-related violence during its half-century of independence. It also spurred greater criticism of mediation efforts by the regional peace-and-security bloc, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo then ratcheted tensions on Feb. 5, when he announced that four heavily armed Lesotho Defence Force soldiers were arrested on their way to the provincial South African hospital where the two bodyguards – soldiers themselves, who had reportedly tipped off Thabane about the Aug. 30 putsch and helped him escape into South Africa – lay wounded.
“We believe the four arrested intended to finish off the soldiers who they didn’t kill” earlier, Molapo told AFP. Molapo, though, declined to provide their names or location, for the claim to be verified. An LDF spokesman denied the arrests, saying all soldiers were accounted for in Lesotho.
Two days later, South African Police Service National Spokesman Solomon Makgale told AFP: “The SAPS has not arrested Lesotho soldiers.”
From the Lesotho government, this was the latest sensational claim of security threats, without providing evidence – in a political atmosphere filled with unsubstantiated accusations between the government and its opponents.
In November, leaders stated that “foreign mercenaries” had entered to country to assassinate Thabane and others; later in the month, they called on SADC to expel two commanders responsible for Thabane’s security, accusing them of leaking details to political rivals.
Even the Lesotho police investigations into the “high treason” and “murder” reportedly carried out during the Aug. 30 putsch remain open and ongoing, a police spokesman tells AFP – yet with no details disclosed.
If the four-soldiers-arrested story had proven true, the spill-over of Lesotho’s crisis into South Africa would have reflected poorly on South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who leads SADC mediation efforts in Lesotho.
Just days before the shootout, SADC leaders praised Ramaphosa for his “excellent facilitation” in the mountain enclave fully surrounded by South Africa.
Meanwhile, Molapo – who is also a government spokesman as acting Minister of Communication, while also a smaller-party leader running for re-election – maintain that four soldiers are indeed being held in South Africa, somewhere.
“We are not disclosing their names, because it will draw attention to their units and commanders,” he told AFP. “We will make a full announcement, names and all, after the conclusion of the next phase of SADC mediation commencing next week.”