Jeff Radebe, minister in the South African presidency, described the protection for Tom Thabane as a transitional measure until the political crisis in the tiny mountain kingdom was resolved.
It is not the first time that South Africa, which surrounds Lesotho and its population of 2 million, has had a hand in its affairs, including a military invasion in 1998 that met unexpected resistance.
Pretoria has ruled out a repeat this time, but analysts warn that South Africa’s dependence on Lesotho for water security could raise the stakes.
South Africa has invested billions in a dam system which supplies it with 780m cubic metres of water a year, most of it destined for the economic hub of Gauteng that contains Johannesburg and Pretoria.
“There’s a built-in incentive for it to become a military matter because of the strategic importance of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project,” one political source said. “When there are considerations like that, the situation could escalate faster than it would in normal circumstances.”