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Lesotho Denies Coup Attempt After Troops Move in Capital

January 16, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

MASERU, Lesotho — Security forces in armored cars blocked off government offices in this capital of the small kingdom of Lesotho for a few hours Wednesday, but the reason for the move remained a mystery as the day ended.

The government of Chief Leabua Jonathan, Lesotho's prime minister for the last 20 years, said a bomb scare forced the evacuation of its main offices shortly before lunch, though a three-hour search turned up no bomb.

"It was nothing, and life is back to normal now," Desmond Sixishe, the information minister, said.

Some local political gossips speculated that there might have been an attempted coup, perhaps by pro-South African elements here, and that the security forces' swift arrival thwarted it.

Security Forces' Role

Others speculated that the security forces, dissatisfied with Jonathan's policies, particularly his current confrontation with South Africa, had mounted a coup, but that the politicians, with the help of King Moshoeshoe II, had eventually dissuaded them.

Sixishe denied that there had been any coup attempt or anything but the bomb scare to warrant the speculation.

Not only were the main government offices cordoned off by Lesotho's paramilitary security forces, but police patrols were increased throughout Maseru. Official government limousines were seen coming and going from government offices, the king's palace and security facilities with great frequency, at high speed and sometimes trailed by trucks carrying troops.

All this took place against the background of Lesotho's increasingly strained relations with South Africa, which surrounds Lesotho and is threatening to strangle its economy.

For the last two weeks, South Africa has imposed a virtual blockade on Lesotho, an impoverished nation of 1.5 million people, allowing almost nothing in or out of the landlocked country, as South African border police searched for suspected African National Congress guerrillas and their arms.

Food, Fuel Running Low

Supplies of food, fuel and medicines are running perilously low, with only one truck being allowed across the border from South Africa every 90 minutes at most crossing points. Chief Jonathan has appealed to President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to intervene, and the government is trying to arrange an international airlift to ease the crisis.

Earlier this week, the Lesotho government detained five opposition politicians on suspicion of treason after three had traveled to South Africa to discuss the recent deterioration in relations between the two countries.

In South Africa, state-run radio and television fueled the rumors, reporting with little qualification or attribution that there apparently was a coup attempt, that hundreds were fleeing in panic from Maseru, that troops loyal to the government had surrounded the radio station and that the international airport here had been closed.

Little of this was true, and Information Minister Sixishe accused South Africa of spreading "deliberate disinformation" in an attempt to destabilize his country.

'Nothing Else Happened'

"The king is all right, Chief Jonathan is at his home, and the Cabinet had lunch with the king (on Wednesday) at his invitation," Sixishe said. "Nothing else happened, whatever the rumormongers may be saying."

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