MASERU, Lesotho (Reuters) - Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thomas Thabane deployed the army in the capital Maseru on Saturday against unnamed “rogue national elements” he said wanted to destabilise the southern African country.
A Reuters witness saw armoured vehicles and groups of heavily armed soldiers with riot gear patrolling in the city centre, but the soldiers seemed to have returned to barracks later in the day.
Thabane, 80, is facing strife in both his personal and political life.
His decision to last month suspend parliament, without consultation, over the coronavirus epidemic was branded unconstitutional by coalition partners and by some 20 rivals within his own party, who challenged it in the constitutional court and called on him to quit.
Opposition lawmakers are also threatening to bring a vote of no-confidence. Lesotho is one of the few countries in the world that has not yet reported a single confirmed case of COVID-19.
Thabane is also accused with his current wife Maesaiah of being involved in the murder of his former wife Lipolelo, who was shot dead in June 2017. Thabane, in his second stint as prime minister, and Maesaiah have denied the charges.
“I have since deployed the army to take necessary measures against all rogue national elements who seem to be on a campaign to destabilise the country and its democracy, and (to) restore order with immediate effect,” Thabane said in a television address broadcast live.
Lesotho, which is completely surrounded by South Africa, has experienced several coups since gaining independence from Britain in 1966.
Police rejected reports suggesting that senior police officials, including the national commissioner spearheading Thabane’s criminal case, had been detained by the army.
“Neither the commissioner nor any other police official was arrested,” a police spokesman said.
On Friday, the mountain kingdom’s Constitutional Court said Thabane’s decision to prorogue parliament ostensibly over coronavirus fears was “irrational”.
“The prime minister executed his powers in an arbitrary and irrational manner ... It is ordered that the prorogation proclaimed by the prime minister is reviewed, corrected and set aside,” Justice Sakoane Sakoane said.
There is no set date for the motion of no-confidence. That will only be determined after the reopening of parliament, which is expected some time next week.
With the standoff between coalition factions and with the opposition brewing, diplomatic representatives to Lesotho from the European Union, United States, South Africa and Britain on Friday warned against any action that could undermine the fight against COVID-19.
“It is critical that first line responders and key workers be allowed to carry out their duties, according to the law, without interference or obstruction,” they said in a joint statement.
“Destabilising actions could be catastrophic,” they added.
Their statement echoed a similar one from the Christian Council of Lesotho organisation.
Writing by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Christina Fincher and Alison Williams