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The dock sits empty as people await the arrival of Lesotho's Prime Minister Thomas Thabane in court in Maseru, Lesotho, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Tiny Lesotho's political problems are again threatening to overflow into neighboring South Africa, with Lesotho's outgoing prime minister crossing the border instead of appearing in a Maseru court Friday to be charged with the murder of his estranged wife, Lipolelo.

Tom Thabane was scheduled to be in court Friday to face the charges in the 2017 death of Lipolelo Thabane, his first wife; however, his representatives say the 80-year-old leader went to South Africa for medical treatment. The prime minister announced Thursday that he would step down by July 31.

Tom Thabane's current wife, Maesaiah, is already charged with the murder and is free on bail despite the fact that she previously fled to South Africa to avoid prosecution. She was arrested shortly upon her return to Lesotho.

The couple have denied any involvement in the shooting death of Lipolelo Thabane, just days before Tom Thabane's election to his second term as prime minister. He previously served as prime minister from 2012 to 2014, but fled to South Africa, claiming that the military was trying to overthrow and kill him.

Fako Moshoeshoe, the chairman of the parliamentary caucus for the ruling All Basotho Convention, told VOA's Peter Clottey that Thabane's party is expediting plans to come up with a replacement.

"We have to call the caucus as soon as possible, as soon as Monday, so that we can sit down and come up with one name definitely, and then the national executive of the ABC will have to respond immediately to those issues and then come to the caucus and just let us know who they think will be the right candidate to become the prime minister," he said. "And then we will take it from there."

He declined to say who might be Thabane's successor.

Thabane's tenure has been marred with drama, including a number of killings of high-ranking officials in recent years. Critics say this is an inevitable consequence of Thabane's failure to keep the nation's security forces out of politics.

Uncertainty

For now, the tiny mountain kingdom, which is led by a constitutional monarch, appears calm; however, economist Emmanuel Letete says the political drama has taken its toll.

"It has created some bit of uncertainty to the investors that they are no longer sure what is going to happen to the government or not," he told VOA. "You see, they hear news about the prime minister, about the prime minister retiring, about the prime minister involved, probably, or suspected to have been involved, in the murder of his wife. But then all this creates a very dark cloud over the economy in terms of foreign investors because they cannot make their own decisions whether to come or not."

Moshoeshoe appealed to leaders in the enclave nation, which is surrounded on all sides by South Africa, to keep calm and carry on.

"We appeal to each and every one in our country, most especially political leaders, to make sure that we keep the peace and prosperity of the country, for the sake of the country," he said.

A resident collects vegetables purchased through group orders at the entrance of a residential compound in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Hubei province, China February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer CHINA OUT.

The World Health Organization said Friday that time was running out to stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak as the number of cases outside China grew.

WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, "We are still in a phase where containment is possible,” but he warned “our window of opportunity is narrowing."

He said that while the number of cases outside China remained "relatively small," he expressed concern about the rise in cases around the world with no clear link to China.

Tedros cited new cases of the virus in Iran, as well as in an Iranian traveler who carried the virus to Lebanon, and another traveler who spread the virus from Iran to Canada.

Lebanon confirmed its first coronavirus case Friday, a 45-year-old woman who had arrived from Iran and was being quarantined in a hospital.

"We confirmed the first case today," Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan told a news conference, adding that two other suspected cases were being investigated. The woman arrived Thursday on a flight from Qom, Iran.

Meanwhile, Iranian health authorities Friday reported two more deaths from the new coronavirus.

The spokesman for Iran's Health Ministry, Kianoush Jahanpour, said the newly detected cases were all linked with Qom, where the first two elderly patients died Wednesday. So far, 18 cases have been confirmed in Iran, including the four who died.

Another official with Iran's Health Ministry, Minoo Mohraz, said the virus "possibly came from Chinese workers who work in Qom and traveled to China." A Chinese company has been building a solar power plant in Qom.

Qom is a popular religious destination and a center of learning and religious studies for Shiite Muslims from inside Iran, as well as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

In neighboring Turkey, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said officials had started to screen travelers arriving from Iran at border gates and were refusing entry to anyone who had traveled to Qom in the past 14 days or who had signs of illness.

There have been few virus cases in the Middle East. Nine cases have been confirmed in the United Arab Emirates and one case in Egypt.

The virus also spread further Friday in South Korea and Italy.

Infections nearly doubled in South Korea, rising to 204, making the country the hardest-hit outside China.

Tedros said Friday, “I hope South Korea will do everything to contain this outbreak at this early stage.”

South Korea Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun told a government meeting about the virus, “We have entered an emergency phase.”

In Italy, authorities said 14 people had tested positive for the virus in the northern region of Lombardy, bringing the number of cases in the country to 17. Officials have ordered the closure of schools, restaurants and businesses in the region.

Also Friday, two Australians and an Israeli evacuated from a cruise ship in Japan tested positive for the virus after returning to their home countries. Israel's Health Ministry said this was the first case to be reported inside Israel.

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