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Thousands attend colorful coronation ceremony for Lesotho king

October 31, 1997 GMT

MASERU, Lesotho (AP) _ With Prince Charles and several African leaders looking on, Letsie III was formally crowned king of Lesotho on Friday in a ceremony that emphasized hope for stability in the troubled region.

More than 20,000 people cheered wildly in Maseru’s sports stadium when Letsie, 34, put on the traditional calf-skin headband and a leopard-skin robe. A Basotho tribal chief then placed a long, gray feather in the new king’s hair.

The coronation in the southern African nation followed a period of mourning for Letsie’s father, Moshoeshoe II, who died in a car accident in January 1996 when his chauffeur-driven vehicle ran off one of the winding, mountain roads outside the capital.

Troupes of dancers paraded across the stadium’s parched grass, some bare-breasted and smeared with red ocher. Drums and chanting accompanied them as Letsie watched from his seat high in the stands.

South Africa’s first black leader, President Nelson Mandela, was among the African notables in the stadium, as were two of Africa’s other remaining royals _ Swazi King Mswati III and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Britain’s heir to the throne, Prince Charles, also attended, 50 years after his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, visited the country while it was still part of the British empire.

Charles offered the queen’s best wishes for ``a long and successful reign.″

Lesotho, a poor country the size of Switzerland and surrounded by South Africa, has experienced political turmoil since it gained independence from Britain in 1966.

A series of military coups ousted Moshoeshoe from the throne three times, sending him into exile in 1990.

The tables turned in 1994 when Letsie backed a palace coup to reinstate his father and oust the country’s first government to be elected in a multiparty vote.

South Africa, a source of turmoil during the apartheid era, brokered a settlement, under Mandela’s auspices, that created a more constitutional monarchy.

Friday’s coronation was the country’s first since 1963, and many people in Lesotho, mindful of its decades of political upheaval, are hoping Letsie’s ascendancy to the throne will usher in an era of peace.

The new king told the crowd that the Basotho people must draw strength from their tradition and tribal unity.

``It is my strong belief that the many problems that we face today force us to look back and focus as a nation to find a solution that will base itself on our traditions,″ he said.

Protesters took to the capital streets in June to march against the formation of a new ruling party by Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle. In February, soldiers put down a brief police mutiny in two hours of shooting that echoed through Maseru.

During the coronation, Mandela thanked Lesotho for helping blacks in South Africa overcome apartheid and said Letsie and his country should now assist the region in battling new dangers.

``Hunger, starvation, illiteracy and unemployment may not seem as powerful as the enemies of the past, but we know they are equally destructive,″ said Mandela, wearing a trademark flowing, colorful shirt and trousers.

Letsie first assumed the throne after his father was exiled in 1990. He was king when he dissolved the elected government in 1994, then gave up the crown so his returned father could reassume it in January 1995.

People began arriving at the stadium at dawn Friday, and it was filled to capacity when the five-hour midmorning celebration began.

Escorted by ranks of mounted policemen dressed in red uniforms and carrying sabers and lances, Letsie arrived to inspect a phalanx of soldiers, while a military band played and ceremonial cannons boomed.

Three helicopters flew past trailing blue, green and white smoke _ the colors of Lesotho’s flag.

Letsie, wearing a blue tunic embroidered with a golden crocodile, waved to the crowd afterward as he rode around the stadium in the back of an open pickup truck.

Nearly 200 Basotho riders clad in multicolored blankets and clutching staffs paraded after the ceremony. Roars of laughter erupted when two of the horsemen fell off.