Lesotho Nuns, Pupils Seized on Way to See Pope

Times Staff Writer

A busload of schoolchildren, nuns and others on a pilgrimage to see Pope John Paul II was hijacked Tuesday and was being held outside the gates of the British mission here early today, hours before the pontiff's scheduled arrival, British diplomats said.

On board were 60 hostages, including 40 children and eight nuns, who had come here Tuesday from Qacha's Nek, in southeastern Lesotho, to see the Pope during his three-day visit to this tiny African kingdom. Their destination was a convent outside Maseru, the capital.

Police surrounded the bus on a residential street in Maseru, blocking traffic from the area.

The hijackers demanded entry to the compound of the British High Commission, or embassy, but officials there refused.

"They wanted access. I couldn't think of a reason to permit it. They have no business with us," said Jervase Chavasee, Britain's deputy high commissioner in Lesotho.

Police and military officials refused to comment, and reporters were turned away from the scene by a roadblock.

It was not clear how many hijackers were on board the bus, where they had seized the vehicle, what their demands were or who the armed men were. No injuries had been reported.

Took Power in 1986 Coup

Speculation centered on groups opposed to the six-man military junta, headed by Maj. Gen. Justin M. Lekhanya, that has ruled here since seizing power in a 1986 coup.

Lesotho officials reportedly were worried about infiltration by one such group, the Lesotho Liberation Army. Entry into the country from South Africa, which surrounds Lesotho, had been eased for the Pope's visit.

Chief Leabua Jonathan, who ruled here for 20 years until his overthrow in 1986, was supported by the gun-toting Basotho National Party Youth League.

The Pope, on a five-nation, 10-day tour of southern Africa, was to arrive this morning from Botswana. The hostage-taking raised the possibility that he might cancel his three-day visit here.

This country provides the religious centerpiece of the Pope's trip--the beatification of Father Gerard, a pioneer Catholic missionary of Lesotho. John Paul is scheduled to hold an open-air Mass this afternoon in the rural village of Roma, about 40 miles from Maseru, and a second Mass on Thursday in the Maseru stadium, only a few miles from where the women, children and other pilgrims were being held.

The 60 hostages were from the Daughters of the Charity of the Sacred Heart and had begun their trip to Maseru early Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the order said she did not know what had happened to the group but that the bus did not reach its destination in Maseru. She said almost all of the people on board were Basotho people from Lesotho but that one of the nuns was Canadian.

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