JOHANNESBURG — Lesotho's military seized two police stations Saturday as gunfire rang out in the capital of the mountainous kingdom. The country's prime minister said the actions amounted to a coup, though an army spokesman said the soldiers were only securing the country.
Political tensions have been high in the tiny kingdom that is completely surrounded by South Africa since June when there was a power struggle after Prime Minister Thomas Thabane suspended parliament to dodge a vote of no confidence. At the time, South Africa warned against simmering conflict.
"We are calling on the commander of the armed forces to return to the barracks and allow the democratically elected government to return to its business," Clayson Monyela, spokesman for South Africa's Department of International Relations and Co-operations, said Saturday.
He said actions by Lesotho's military bore the hallmarks of a coup d'etat, but added, "The situation in Lesotho is still unfolding. No one has claimed to take over government ... so we are monitoring that ... our interest is to see it resolved through peaceful means."
The military's actions forced the prime minister to go into hiding, said Monyela. However, the prime minister had earlier told BBC that he is in South Africa visiting his daughter and would return to Lesotho Sunday. Calls to the prime minister's spokesman and office were not answered.
Monyela said the 15-nation regional group, the Southern African Development Community, will intervene and they are trying to bring all players to the table for talks at this time.
When asked if South Africa would send military, Monyela said that wasn't under consideration at this time.
"We prefer peaceful resolution to any crisis, particularly if it's a political crisis ... Such things become last resorts," he said.
Lesotho's defense forces spokesman Ntlele Ntoi played down the events.
"As we speak now, the situation in Lesotho, in the capital, is back to normal. It's business as usual," he told The Associated Press.
The military had gathered intelligence that the police were going to arm factions participating in a demonstration planned for Monday by one of the coalition parties, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, he said. The military disarmed police in the capital, Maseru, to avoid bloodshed, Ntoi said.
An exchange of gunfire between the military, youths and police injured one soldier and four policemen, he said.
"The arms have been removed and they are in military custody. The military has returned to the barracks," Ntoi said, denying reports of any coup attempt. "We are not in a position now or in the future to stage a coup. All we do is to carry out our mandate to secure our country and property."
He said that the military did not know if the march will still take place Monday.
Ntoi said he had heard reports that radio stations had been down for a few hours. He said he could not say if they were down for technical problems or because of the military.
But Lesotho's Prime Minister Thomas Thabane told South Africa's eNCA television that the military actions amounted to a coup. He said he did not give permission for the action and that something like this should not be happening in a democratic state. He is going to meet with South African officials, and expects South Africa to help his government restore law and order, he said.
Bernard Ntlhoaea, a guard at the U.S. Embassy in Maseru, confirmed that gunfire was heard in the capital early Saturday.
"The military has been moving around from 3 o'clock in the morning, occupying police stations in Maseru and moving around to other districts," said Ntlhoaea. He said the military was armed and he saw at least one armored personnel carrier on the streets.
The landlocked country's first coalition government was formed in 2012 after competitive elections that ousted the 14-year incumbent Pakalitha Mosisili, who peacefully stepped down from power. The coalition has since been fragile.
Lesotho has seen unrest in its past and has seen a number of military coups since gaining independence from Britain in 1966.
The constitutional government was restored in 1993, after seven years of military rule. Violent protests and a military mutiny in 1998 came after a contentious election prompted intervention by South African military forces. Political stability returned after constitutional reforms, and parliamentary elections were peacefully held in 2002.
South Africa's Democratic Alliance Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said "today's events come after heightened political tensions in June this year, which led to the country's parliament being suspended, as a result of a breakdown of the coalition government."