JOHANNESBURG - Southern Africa's regional body said Monday it will send an envoy and an observer team to Lesotho to help restore stability and security in the mountainous kingdom where military actions over the weekend caused the prime minister to flee.
The Southern African Development Community announced the measures after an emergency meeting with Lesotho's prime minister, Thomas Thabane, deputy prime minister, Mothetjoa Metsing, and others in Pretoria.
Political tensions have been high between Thabane, Metsing and others within the country's first coalition government since June when the prime minister suspended parliament to dodge a vote of no confidence.
On Saturday, the military in Lesotho disarmed police in the capital, Maseru, saying they had received information that police were planning to supply arms to participants in a demonstration. Thabane called the actions a coup attempt and said he fled to South Africa for his safety and for consultations.
Lesotho, a country of about 2 million people, is surrounded by South Africa. Thabane's All Basotho Convention party and Metsing's Lesotho Congress for Democracy formed a coalition with Thesele Maseribane's Basotho National Party after elections in 2012. Conflict has since simmered.
After the talks Monday, led by South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, Lesotho's leaders agreed to a roadmap with a "clear timeline" on working toward removing the parliamentary suspension. They also agreed to release a joint statement "appealing for calm and exercise restrain with a view to rapidly bring law and order back in the Kingdom," according to the SADC.
The 15-member community has intervened before in Lesotho, which has seen a number of military coups since gaining independence from Britain in 1966.
The U.S. Embassy in Maseru had over the weekend advised citizens in Lesotho that "the Department of State has ordered the departure of non-employed family members of U.S. Mission personnel due to concerns over a possible deterioration of the security situation in Lesotho."
The State Department's Emergency Message said the U.S. Embassy would be open on Tuesday and Wednesday only to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens, and warned the embassy "may be forced to suspend operations" if the security situation worsens.
"The United States remains deeply concerned by uncertainty over the political process and the state of public security in Lesotho's capital Maseru," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement issued late Monday. "We continue to call upon government officials and all parties to reach a resolution through peaceful dialogue."
There was little evidence of the conflict Monday in Maseru, but police were largely off the streets and at one of the attacked stations were walking in and out of the building in civilian clothes, not in uniform. The demonstration, which had been called by Metsing's party, was canceled.
Lesotho, though a poor country, is known for manufacturing clothes, its hydropower projects and the provision of water to South Africa.
Residents said they were worried about their businesses and the future.
"I am a businessman, I am working with guys from overseas, so now it is not easy for them to come here and invest . All the projects that I'm doing now they might not go on," said Hatahata Majora, who is self-employed.
The country's constitutional government was restored in 1993, after seven years of military rule. Violent protests and a military mutiny in 1998 came after a contentious election prompted intervention by South African military forces. Political stability returned after constitutional reforms, and parliamentary elections were peacefully held in 2002.