With Lesotho on edge following Tuesday’s shooting of the country’s military leader and two senior officers, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will send a fact-finding mission to the mountain kingdom on Thursday.
At the same time defenceWeb has been reliably informed South African soldiers deployed on the border protection tasking Operation Corona have been told to be more vigilant and mindful of developments in Lesotho.
The landlocked country is bounded by three South African provinces – Eastern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal – and each one has a company, numbering around 170 strong, currently deployed.
Lesotho’s top military leader, Khoantle Motsomotso and two senior officers were shot dead on Tuesday at an army barracks, the government said.
While not immediately clear what the motivation for the shooting was, the kingdom has been subject to several coups and periodic political violence since gaining independence from Britain in 1966. South Africa called for calm in the wake of the deaths.
Colonel Tanki Mothae, principal secretary for the defence force, told Reuters the two senior officers were under investigation for the murder of a former Lesotho defence commander in 2015.
Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, who fled the country in 2014 after a coup attempt and whose wife was shot dead in June, offered no details about the killings during a news conference other than saying the incident was being investigated.
Neither Mothae nor the prime minister confirmed South African media reports the two officers who killed the defence commander died in a subsequent firefight with soldiers.
South African President Jacob Zuma condemned “in the strongest terms possible the senseless and regrettable killing” and called for “calm and restraint”.
Zuma said SADC would send a ministerial fact-finding mission to Lesotho on Thursday to assess the situation.
South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has made frequent trips to Lesotho to try to secure peace among political rivals as an SADC facilitator.
Lesotho has had bouts of political turbulence since the 2014 attempted coup and its last three elections - most recently in June - failed to produce winners with clear majorities.
Military sources in South Africa agree if there is to be any military intervention in Lesotho it will fall to the ACIRC (African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises) force, largely led by Zuma within the southern African bloc.
“If it reaches the stage where the military has to go in, it will definitely not be a SA National Defence Force (SANDF) deployment. The force will be a SADC one and in all likelihood will be an ACIRC one,” an officer said on condition of anonymity.
Lesotho is a major supplier of water to South Africa’s industrial heartland.
Defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman has noted that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is one of South Africa’s external interests that is critical to meeting the water requirements of the industrial and economic heartland of South Africa, and which will in future provide 1 000 MW peak electrical power from a pumped storage plant.
“The potential risk lies in instability or insurrection in Lesotho, but the technical risk is fairly low: The dams are massive structures beyond the ability of likely irregular forces to damage, and the water runs through tunnels difficult to damage, although it could be possible to block an intake to cause some disruption of the water supply. The pumped water scheme, though, offers potential for sabotage of the pumps, the generation plant and the power lines,” Heitman stated. He suggests an air assault battalion be used to secure the critical elements of the Lesotho Highlands system.