JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In a contentious milestone for democratic South Africa, the government of President Nelson Mandela deployed hundreds of troops Tuesday to the neighboring mountain kingdom of Lesotho in a bid to bring calm to the troubled nation.
But to Pretoria's surprise, the country's first significant foreign military engagement since Mandela became president four years ago ignited fierce gunfights between South African and Lesotho troops and unleashed a torrent of anti-South African sentiment.
South African-owned businesses were ransacked and set afire, cars with South African license plates were pelted with stones, and guests at South African-run hotels were hurriedly evacuated across the border. By midday, a thick cloud of smoke from smoldering buildings ringed downtown Maseru, Lesotho's capital.
"It is a very unsettled situation," a Western diplomat said in a telephone interview from Maseru. "A lot of thugs have been using the occasion to harass people, to loot, to rob and to hijack vehicles."
At least 10 people were killed, including five South African soldiers, and more than 60 people were injured.
By early evening, about 200 Americans and other foreigners had gathered in the parking lot of the U.S. Embassy in Maseru to await a military escort to the South African border, which is about 1 1/2 miles away. Hundreds of others were reported stranded at the border post awaiting visas.
Since a disputed election in May, the Lesotho military, government and other institutions have been racked by divisions and infighting; by last weekend, the country was virtually without a government as opposition parties encouraged a nationwide mutiny.
The button-sized country of 2 million has a long history of political and military instability, and some analysts suggest that the current impasse differs little from past conflicts. The defiant nation--it has pushed back repeated waves of invaders--has a particularly complex relationship with South Africa, which dominates it geographically, economically and socially.
"This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened, and I hate to say it isn't the last," said the Western diplomat in Maseru. "History seems to repeat itself here."
But analysts described the bloody confrontation as a dramatic departure from Mandela's practice of steering clear of the continent's many military conflicts, such as those now in Congo and Angola. In hindsight, they said, Tuesday's intervention may be viewed as a turning point in the young democracy's effort to influence events across Africa.
"I suspect the intention was to be Nelson Mandela's soldiers on shiny white horses coming to bring order," said James Higgs of the Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. "They were surely surprised by the reception they got.
"It is a very interesting test of South African foreign policy and the extent to which it can be said to be farsighted or planned," Higgs said. "I would say the answer remains to be seen."
The deployment came as Mandela visited the United States and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki was also out of the country. Home Affairs Minister Mangosutho Buthelezi--who is serving as acting president--told South African lawmakers that the military action came at the request of the Lesotho government.
Critics said scenes in Maseru on Tuesday were reminiscent of aggression by South Africa's former apartheid regime, which had a history of military forays into neighboring countries. In the early 1980s, the white-minority government twice launched raids in Maseru, which had been a haven for members of Mandela's banned African National Congress.
"I want to register our strongest condemnation. This act of aggression is shortsighted," said Boy Geldenhuys of the National Party, which ruled South Africa under apartheid. "We would like to apologize to the people of Lesotho."
The 600 South African troops, scheduled to be backed up today by 200 troops from Botswana, encountered strong resistance from Lesotho soldiers no longer loyal to the government. Witnesses said some civilians also took up arms to resist the South African deployment, which came both by air and land shortly before dawn.
"There is a raging battle as I am talking to you," Malapo Qhobela, a leading opposition figure, said in a telephone interview late in the afternoon. "I am delighted to inform the international opinion [that] Nelson Mandela's reactionary forces are getting a bloody good pounding."
Lesotho's opposition groups contend that the May election was rigged by the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which won all but one seat in Parliament. A review of the tally released this month by the Southern African Development Community, an organization of countries in the region, confirmed that there were irregularities but did not recommend a new election.
In letters last week, Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili twice requested military intervention by the South African Development Community, which includes South Africa. "The most serious tragedy is that the police, and in particular the army, are at best spectators," Mosisili said in a Sept. 16 letter.
Buthelezi described the deployment as a peacekeeping operation on behalf of the development community. South African officials, who for weeks have been trying to mediate a political settlement between the Maseru government and the disgruntled opposition groups, said talks would resume today.
"The purpose of the intervention is to stabilize the situation for the purposes of achieving a lasting political solution," Buthelezi said.