Eye witness

October 2, 1998

Next week Lesotho should be celebrating 32 years of independence from Britain - but the near-destruction of Maseru, its capital, in fighting between rebel troops and South African soldiers has cast a shadow over the event.

During apartheid the South African enclave survived through international aid and remittances from migrant workers in the Orange Free State. Now the aid has all but dried up.

While it is too early to say if the effort to disarm the rebels within the Lesotho defence force has been effective, some observers of the southern African political situation have raised the prospect of a guerrilla war as some rebels take to the hills surrounding Maseru.

South Africa and Botswana were invited in by prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili under a 1994 agreement between the presidents of those countries - and president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Under the umbrella of the Southern African Development Community, they warned they would intervene to quell unrest in Lesotho after King Letsie III overturned the country's first free elections in 1993. In the event diplomacy prevailed over military intervention - until last month.

King Letsie, chancellor of the National University of Lesotho, has been close to the opposition and has been at odds with the government since the May 1998 elections.

But, irrespective of political affiliation, many Basothos resented SADC intervention - especially as many officers were white. David Simon, director of the centre for developing areas research at Royal Holloway University of London, said: "The operation does appear to have been rather chaotic - they do not seem to have anticipated resistance."

Dr Simon said that unless the rebels were disarmed, troops could become embroiled in a conflict which might develop into South Africa's Vietnam.

"Given Lesotho's peculiar circumstances, the end of apartheid has given rise to a rather more than academic debate about whether the country can remain viable in future. There has been quite serious debate about linking up with South Africa."

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