JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- With the death toll mounting in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, South Africa's first post-apartheid military operation on foreign soil ran into wide criticism yesterday as an ill-considered, poorly executed mission.
There has been more bloodshed, destruction and disorder since South African troops entered the neighboring country Tuesday than in the previous four months of crisis in Lesotho over %J allegations of ballot-rigging in May elections.
The death toll reached 49 yesterday, including eight South African soldiers, with dozens injured as the troops met stiffer than expected resistance from the Lesotho army.
Maseru, Lesotho's capital, was in ruins, with buildings and vehicles burned and shops looted. South African property was a particular target.
In South Africa, the Lesotho venture stirred immediate misgivings among opposition political parties and the mainstream news media. Radio talk shows resounded with words such as "botched" and "misguided."
President Nelson Mandela's ruling African National Congress faced opposition calls for an immediate cease-fire, followed by military withdrawal and formation of a government of national unity in Lesotho.
With Mandela in North America and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, also out of the country, the troop deployment was ordered by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the home affairs minister left in charge of the country.
Major questions hanging over the intervention include:
Did King Letsie III, Lesotho's head of state, approve the intervention? Under Lesotho's constitution, any outside help must be requested by the monarch. Buthelezi said the troops were sent at the request of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.
Had the Lesotho army and opposition staged a coup before the South African troops were ordered in? South African Defense Minister Joe Modise said yesterday that mutineers were staging a coup, but Lesotho opposition spokeswomen Mamelo Morrison said the coup allegation was a pretext for the military intervention.
Why were the major South African opposition parties not consulted before the deployment was ordered?
Was the operation approved by the other 13 members of the Southern African Development Community, which had been trying to broker a peace agreement in Lesotho? Pretoria said the operation was an SADC -- not solely a South African -- initiative, but contacts with other SADC members were limited mainly to phone calls. Troops from Botswana entered Lesotho yesterday to support the South Africans.
A chorus of largely negative editorial comment filled South African newspapers.
"Instead of re-establishing law and order, the military operation appears, at this stage, to have triggered greater instability," said the prestigious Business Day. "Enormous damage has already been done to relations between the two people. The sooner SA withdraws, the better for all concerned."
The Citizen, an opposition newspaper, said: "We think there has been a grave misjudgment. Far from nobly intervening to support a good neighbor in trouble, our government has given the impression of declaring war on the people of Lesotho."
The Star, which is frequently sympathetic to the black majority government, said Lesotho's rapid descent into anarchy was threatening South African and regional interests.
It blamed politicians in Lesotho for failing to reach a negotiated agreement, and said: "Yesterday South Africa learnt the grim lesson that the price of regional stability and prosperity can be very heavy."
Pub Date: 9/24/98