JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane confirmed Saturday that the military had seized power in a coup in the tiny kingdom and that he had fled to neighbouring South Africa in fear of his life.
"I have been removed from control not by the people but by the armed forces, and that is illegal," Thabane told the BBC.
"I came into South Africa this morning and I will return as soon as my life is not in danger," he said. "I will not go back to Lesotho to get killed."
Lesotho's military seized control of police headquarters and the premier's residence in the capital Maseru in the early hours of Saturday, but later withdrew, a government minister told AFP.
"The armed forces, the special forces of Lesotho, have taken the headquarters of the police," said sports minister and leader of the Basotho National Party, Thesele Maseribane.
"The (military) commander said he was looking for me, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister to take us to the king. In our country, that means a coup," he said.
The putsch comes just months after a power struggle in the landlocked country that describes itself as the "kingdom in the sky".
Maseribane said people with guns were roaming the city but that he had no information about casualties, accusing the military of jamming radio stations and phone networks.
He accused Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, leader of coalition partner Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), of involvement in the move to seize power.
"There is some intelligence that he is part (of the coup)," he said.
The LCD is part of a shaky coalition which has governed since elections two years ago.
But, increasingly frustrated with Thabane, the party vowed months ago to form a new government and oust the premier in the nation that is entirely surrounded by South Africa.
In response, Thabane suspended parliament - with the blessing of King Letsie III who has ruled the constitutional monarchy since 1996 - allowing him to dodge a no-confidence vote.
After emergency talks in June, the coalition parties, including Thabane's All Basotho Convention (ABC), agreed to continue working together.
The sports minister said later Saturday that the military had moved away from the police headquarters and and returned to barracks, but that they had seized all police vehicles.
He had earlier insisted Thabane's government was still in control.
An AFP photographer reported shots ringing out in the early hours, saying a reinforced military contingent was guarding the prime minister's official residence and that soldiers were patrolling the streets of Maseru.
Maseribane said he had fled his residence after receiving a warning about an impending putsch, and refused to divulge his whereabouts.
"The prime minister and myself, (we are) still the coalition government. The prime minister is still in power," he said.
"There's still a lot of danger. People who have arms are running around Maseru." Metsing could not immediately be reached for comment, but another LCD member, Communications Minister Selibe Mochoboroane, denied knowledge of events in the capital.
"I've just heard now," he told AFP, speaking from the countryside.
Two clerics who were part of the team that mediated the coalition deal in June said they were rushing to the capital.
"Pray for our country, we don't know what is happening," Lesotho Evangelical Church head Simeon Masemene told AFP.
Lesotho is no stranger to political crisis.
In 1986, South Africa's apartheid government instigated a coup to prevent the country being used as a base by the African National Congress and other activists.
In 1998, following election riots, South Africa and Botswana embarked on an ill-fated invasion that reduced the capital to rubble.
In recent decades there has been a series of attempted political assassinations.
But the last elections in 2012 passed off relatively peacefully, with three major parties forging a coalition.
However coalition partners have accused Thabane of operating without consulting them.
"Since the previous elections, the coalition struggles to work and the premier was criticised for his authoritarianism," a European diplomatic source in Lesotho told AFP.
The power tussle had drawn concern from powerful neighbour South Africa, which gets water and electricity from the kingdom.