(HN, September 6, 2010) - In a sudden crime wave that has now claimed the lives of at least two people in one week and put Maseru's small expatriate community and locals alike on edge, questions are being raised on what’s behind the upsurge in violence in one of the safest capital cities in Africa.
Earlier today, gunshots rang out at the glitzy Pioneer shopping mall near the city centre in what local police described to HUMNEWS as an attempted robbery. The mall is frequented by middle class locals and foreigners alike and is regarded as one of the safest places in the city. Several prominent South African chains, such as the Pick n Pay supermarket, have outlets at the mall.
The incident happened around the same time that friends and co-workers of slain Thomas Maresco gathered to mourn the US Peace Corps volunteer at a special memorial at the US Peace Corps compound in Maseru. The 24-year old native of Port St. Lucie, FL was gunned-down Friday night near the compound as he was leaving the 4-star Maseru Sun hotel with a female colleague.
Although an investigation is still underway, reports are that an armed man stopped the two Americans as they were leaving the hotel property, and unprovoked, fatally shot the US Peace Corps volunteer in the head. The unidentified woman escaped unharmed.
The attack on Maresco occurred just two days after a suspected attempted robbery on another foreign aid worker. Police say three male adults approached a former UN volunteer near the Khali Hotel in Maseru. While she was walking towards the main road, they threatened her with a knife on her neck and forcefully took her handbag. She escaped unharmed, and two suspects were later arrested and one is still at large.
What has surprised locals and expatriates alike is that the areas where all the recent attacks took place are considered very safe. Overall Lesotho, a country the size of Belgium that is entirely land-locked by South Africa, is ranked as one of the safest countries in sub-Saharan Africa - so much so that the United Nations has no security phase in place.
It’s not only locals that have been targeted in the recent violent crime wave. Police said a Maseru resident in his 40s was shot dead in the past week while driving his car into his gated driveway.
One of the most high profile crimes occurred way back In April 2009, in an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister by attackers apparently planning to seize power. The Prime Minister survived but such acts tend to cause worry in neighbouring South Africa because of the possibility of a spill-over or because unrest could disrupt crucial supplies of water and electricity from Lesotho.
In the case of Mareso, no arrests have yet been made. A Peace Corps statement says he taught secondary education in the impoverished, highlands district of Thaba-Tseka since November 2009. Maresco was scheduled to serve until January 2012.
In today’s shooting at Pioneer Mall, the Maseru police said they had their eye on a suspect who has targeted the ATM at the mall “several times” but he has not yet been apprehended by authorities.
While there is no evidence to suggest all the recent attacks are linked, Lesotho-watchers say increasing desperation among young working-age males could be a factor behind the sudden crime wave. Ever since the borders with South Africa were abruptly tightened on the eve of the World Cup in June, many people who had cross-border jobs are stranded. As it is, Lesotho is one of the poorest countries on the planet, and with one of the most unequal wealth distribution rankings.
The unemployment rate is at more than 20% and aid agencies are planning to assist about 450,000 people - about a quarter of the total population - with humanitarian assistance this year and next.
By Cristina Khalaf, staff files