By Alan Cowell and Special to the New York Times
Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan of Lesotho, facing a South African blockade, was reported today to have been overthrown by his army commander after a five-day political crisis.
On Sunday, Chief Jonathan, accused by foes of ruling the small, mountainous kingdom undemocratically, told reporters in Maseru, the capital, that South Africa was trying to overthrow him. But he insisted that he was in control.
Early today, however, state-run Radio Lesotho said Gen. Justin Lekanhya had toppled Chief Jonathan’s Government. A reporter driving through the streets of Maseru said the small capital was quiet.
Sanctuary for Fugitives
Chief Jonathan had been in power for 19 years in Lesotho, and two elections there have been cancelled. If word of the coup is confirmed, the overthrow could have far-reaching effects, since Lesotho, under Chief Jonathan has been a principle sanctuary for South Africa political fugitives, including the African National Congress (ANC).
South Africa has been imposing strict border controls on Lesotho since Jan. 1 as part of what it calls security measures directed against the African National Congress.
The blockade seems to have brought to the surface strains within the kingdom’s own political hierarchy.
Five soldiers – said to include four rebels and a loyalist – died in a gun battle at a barracks near Maseru Friday night, and Chief Jonathan said 35 soldiers involved in a rebellion had been part of a South African effort to have the army “turn against me.”
The paramilitary force in Lesotho numbers 1,500.
After days of speculation that he had been overthrown by his own military, Chief Jonathan was asked on Sunday if he felt secure in his position.
“Although one never knows,” he replied, “I would myself think and believe that I am in firm, complete control. I have never in all my political career of more than 30 years been so accepted, not only within the forces, but within the country at large.” ‘In the Berlin Fashion’
At a news conference at his mountain retreat outside Maseru, he also said he wanted the United States and Britain to organize an airlift, similar to that in Berlin in 1948-49, to circumvent South Africa’s border restrictions. The small mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, a former British protectorate, is encircled by South Africa.
“It is a full economic siege, a complete blockade, like the one that existed in Berlin,” Chief Jonathan said of the South African restrictions, which have left Maseru low on gasoline, medical supplies and some foods.
“I am surprised that Britain and America, to whom I have spoken, have not come to my assistance because they did go to Berlin,” he said.
What he wanted from the United States and Britain, he said, was “like what they did in Berlin, in the Berlin fashion, that is what I’m expecting Britain and America to do.”
Workers in Battle In South Africa itself
Meanwhile, the police said seven black workers at a gold mine had died in a tribal fight. The clash apparently reflected divisions between Zulus and Pondos that claimed more than 50 lives in a battle near Durban on Dec. 25.
The police said 2,000 of the 13,000 black workers employed at the Kloof mine, west of Johannesburg, began fighting with sticks and iron bars after Zulus reportedly attacked Pondos at a beer hall they frequented. The fighting was also said to have drawn in Shangaan workers.
The Shangaan tribe inhabits parts of southern Mozambique and the northeastern border regions of South Africa. Mozambique has traditionally sent migrants to work in South Africa’s mines.
The police said 39 black mine workers were seriously wounded in a battle that, by the police account, prompted the police to move in with tear gas and shotguns. The police said four miners were injured in their intervention.
Rivalries between Zulus and Pondos date from the 19th century when the Pondos were one of the few tribes to resist Zulu expansionism. Tribes in Competition
More recently, south of Durban, economic deprivation has brought the two groups into competition for land, water and jobs. It was not clear, however, how those rivalries had been transposed to the Kloof mine, operated by Gold Fields of South Africa.
In Maseru on Sunday, residents said the capital seemed calm after five days of confusion and tension that started Wednesday when soldiers from the paramilitary force surrounded the offices of Chief Jonathan.
Despite its near-total economic dependence on South Africa, Chief Jonathan has pursued some defiant policies, harboring South African political fugitives, including members of the African National Congress, and permitting the Russians, North Koreans and Chinese to open embassies.
He said Sunday that if his “traditional” Western friends did not help him, then he would seek help from the East bloc for “food, weapons, everything.” Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Isidoro Malmierca, is now visiting Lesotho, but Chief Jonathan seemed to suggest that his main hope of support lay with Western allies.
Chief Jonathan’s adversaries accuse him of ruling undemocratically. He cancelled the results of an election in 1970 when it seemed he was losing and a vote last year was also annulled.
At his news conference Sunday, he said South Africa was seeking to “destabilize” his Government because of his refusal to accept what he called Pretoria’s demands that he hands over African National Congress activists.
Asked if he would hand back Congress supporters, Chief Jonathan replied: “Never in my life. I would rather die.”
“This is absolutely out,” he said. Last Friday, officials from South Africa and Lesotho met in Pretoria to establish a joint security committee, but Chief Jonathan said this would not lead to a nonaggression pact such as the one signed by South Africa and Mozambique on March 16, 1984.
Moreover, he said, he expected no easing of South Africa’s blockade. “They won’t relax the situation unless I send the A.N.C. refugees back to South Africa,” he said, referring to the Congress by its initials.
But he said the Congress’s personnel would not remain in Lesotho and would be sent elsewhere, presumably to other black-ruled African nations, such as Zambia, where the Congress has its headquarters in exile.
Chief Jonathan accused South Africa of creating opposition against him. “They have infiltrated all the echelons of administration in this country,” he said, “the chiefs, civil servants, security forces, people in the village, with the sole purpose of trying to get me out of power.
“Somebody in Pretoria does not like me.” NW
This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.
A version of this article appears in print on January 20, 1986, on Page A00009 of the National edition with the headline: MILITARY COUP REPORTED IN LESOTHO AFTER CRISIS