PRETORIA - Lesotho's leaders are planning to head to the polls early in a bid to restore political order following an attempted coup and stalled peace talks between deadlocked political parties, a South African official said Monday.
As a result of the coalition government not being "fully functional" Lesotho's leaders are planning to "shorten the mandate, of the coalition," said South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.
Lesotho is currently due to hold elections in 2017. The country should now focus on "free, fair and incident free democratic elections for a fresh mandate," said Nkoana-Mashabane.
After weeks of failed talks, South Africa hosted an emergency meeting of regional leaders to negotiate a peace deal for Lesotho.
South African President Jacob Zuma and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, chairman of the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), sat down with Lesotho's leaders to hash out a solution after rival party leaders failed to patch up their differences.
Along with the early election date - to be announced "as soon as possible," said Nkoana-Mashabane - SADC leaders said it will send an observation mission, led by South Africa and including Zimbabwe, to Lesotho for three months to ensure peace and stability.
"Are we deploying soldiers to Lesotho or Kingdom of Lesotho as SADC? The answer is no," said Nkoana-Mashabane.
"They need to go back to the electorate," said the minister, "but they need to be assisted so that political challenges don't get mixed up with the security challenges." On August 30, an attempted coup by renegade general Tlali Kamoli saw the military assault several police stations, prompting the prime minister to flee the country.
Prime Minister Tom Thabane has since returned, protected by South African guards, but a Pretoria-brokered peace deal quickly disintegrated after he refused to reopen parliament.
Reopening the legislature - which was shuttered in June - is seen as a key step toward restoring normality in the tiny mountainous state.
In Maseru, the political crisis appears to be intensifying.
A coalition of opposition parties has joined forces and called on the ruling tripartite coalition to reopen parliament, which is likely to result in an immediate vote of no-confidence for Thabane.
Politicians also rallied behind Kamoli.
The renegade general has refused a prime ministerial order to resign and has apparently raided government armouries in preparation for a showdown.
His allies have warned of a "bloodbath" if he is forcibly removed.
"The whole thing is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation," said defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman.
"I can see the point he is reluctant to reopen parliament while there is a risk of his family being attacked; on the other hand there is no military solution to the problem," said Heitman, speaking from Pretoria.
"You can't solve a political problem with a military solution," he said. "You can enforce something for a while, but it can't last forever." Heitman said it is unlikely that South Africa will send in troops to Lesotho. "I don't see South Africa putting in troops unless they are pretty certain a political solution is to follow," he said.
A military intervention would not be welcome in Lesotho, where many are traumatised by the events of 1998, when post-election violence prompted South African troops to intervene with SADC approval.
Criminal probe launched
Police said Monday that they have launched a criminal investigation into the August 30 events, according to Maseru Police District Commissioner Mofokeng Kolo.
The military assault killed one officer at police headquarters in Maseru, injured nine others, caused significant damage to two other stations, and police were "robbed" of nearly four dozen automatic weapons, Kolo said.
The dead officer, Sub-Inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko, was reportedly guarding the armoury.
"We believe justice must be done," Kolo told AFP. "We believe these acts were illegal and a criminal offence - and we shouldn't keep quiet about them." He rejected calls for an amnesty, which supporters say could help end the crisis.
"We can even talk about amnesty before reconciliation," Kolo said. "And we can't talk about reconciliation while we're still in the middle of this situation."