JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa, in its first post-apartheid military intervention, yesterday sent troops to end political unrest in the South African-encircled mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Five South African soldiers were killed and 11 wounded as they met strong resistance while taking control of military bases in the independent country. Unconfirmed reports said 16 Lesotho soldiers were killed, with up to 50 civilians injured.
About 700 South Africans troops secured the royal palace, home of King Letsie III, the parliamentary building, the central business district and the residential area favored by politicians and diplomats, according to the defense ministry in Pretoria.
But opposition demonstrators set fire to businesses and vehicles -- many of them South African -- in Maseru, the Lesotho capital, where widespread looting also broke out.
The military intervention was an extension of this maturing democracy's readiness to tackle crises on the African continent in general and in southern Africa in particular, where it now chairs the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC). It previously rejected a peace-keeping role citing lack of experience and money.
But Lesotho, nearly the size of Maryland, is more than just a neighbor in trouble. It sits in the heartland of South Africa.
It is a major economic partner, a source of mine labor and a crucial supplier of water to this semi-arid neighbor.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a joint venture between the two governments, is the largest water project ever undertaken in Africa. Its first phase opened in January, securing water supplies for six South African provinces for at least the next decade.
Lesotho is traditionally the homeland of the Sotho nation. It asked for British protection last century against the expansion of Boer settlers, becoming the protectorate of Basutoland in 1884. It won independence in 1966, and has had a turbulent political record since.
Lesotho has been on the brink of anarchy since elections in May. The ruling party won 79 of the 80 seats and the opposition charged ballot-rigging.
Demonstrators supporting five major opposition parties brought government to all but a standstill as they laid siege to official buildings, hijacked government vehicles and rampaged through Maseru.
An independent investigation conducted by a South African judge found that while the election was flawed there were not sufficient grounds to annul the result. This further angered the opposition.
The situation became particularly volatile a week ago when the governing Lesotho Congress for Democracy lost the support of the army.
The senior brass resigned and fled as a younger cadre took control and appeared to align itself with the demonstrators.
Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili appealed for "urgent" SADC intervention, saying "life in Maseru has been grounded," with the gates of parliament locked, civil servants prevented from reporting for work, sniper fire on at least one Cabinet minister's car and widespread damage to property, including the burning of the foreign minister's home.
Last-ditch mediation efforts, led by South Africa, foundered Monday when the government refused to attend all-party talks aimed at ending the crisis.
The order for the South African troops to move in, as spearhead of a SADC intervention, came from Mangosuthu Buthelezi, South Africa's acting president.
With President Nelson Mandela attending the United Nations session in New York, and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, also abroad, Buthelezi is temporarily commander-in-chief of the South African defense forces
He told members of parliament yesterday that he consulted with both Mandela and Mbeki before giving the intervention order. It was, he said, an SADC -- and not solely a South African -- initiative to create stability for "a lasting political solution."
Troops from Botswana, another SADC members, arrived at the Lesotho border late yesterday and will join the South African force today.
"The purpose is not, I would like to stress, to achieve a military solution to a political problem," said Buthelezi.
The intervention provoked immediate condemnation from opposition parties in South Africa.
Boy Geldenhuys, for the major opposition National Party, denounced the "act of aggression" as "short-sighted," and said it would have "serious consequences" for relations with Lesotho. He called for immediate withdrawal and preparation for new elections.
Tony Leon, of the Democratic Party, said the intervention had made a political solution more not less difficult. It also conflicted with South Africa's initial rejection of military intervention by SADC members in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola sent troops to help Laurent Kabila fight off a rebel uprising.
The Mandela government, which initially favored diplomacy in Congo, only later endorsed military intervention to help Kinshasa. SADC members are pledged to oppose any military coup attempt against a member state.
For the United Democratic Movement, Bantu Holomisa said by sending in troops, South Africa had lost its credibility as a mediator. But last night the government was trying to organize all-party talks for today.
During South Africa's former apartheid era, the nation 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.
Pub Date: 9/23/98