Rebels from Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region have seized Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the neighbouring Amhara region famed for its 12th-century rock-hewn churches, residents told the AFP news agency.
Thursday’s development indicates the rebels are continuing a weeks-long push beyond Tigray that has, according to Ethiopian officials, displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Tigray has been racked by fighting since last November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to topple the government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a regional party that dominated national politics before Abiy took office in 2018.
Abiy, the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
But while Abiy promised victory would be swift, the war took a stunning turn in June when pro-TPLF forces retook the Tigray capital, Mekelle, and the Ethiopian army largely withdrew.
Since then the TPLF has pressed east into neighbouring Afar and south into neighbouring Amhara, where Lalibela is located.
Soldiers and militia fighters have mobilised en masse in parts of Amhara to head off the rebels’ advance, but multiple residents of Lalibela told AFP on Thursday that the town fell without a fight.
“They came in the afternoon, and there was no fighting. There were no security forces around. The TPLF forces are in the town now,” one resident said.
“The TPLF just arrived in the afternoon. They were dancing and playing in the square of the city,” another resident said.
“Most of the people are leaving the town to the remote areas,” a third resident said, adding that he was hiding in his home with his family.
The TPLF’s push into the neighbouring regions has drawn global criticism, and the United Nations and the United States this week reiterated calls for all parties to end hostilities.
On Friday, TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda rejected US calls for the Tigrayan fighters to leave neighbouring regions.
“Nothing of the sort is going to happen unless the blockade is lifted,” he said, referring to restrictions on humanitarian access.
Getachew said the push into Lalibela was part of a bid to secure roads in northern Amhara and prevent pro-government forces from regrouping.
“You see, we are under siege. We are under blockage. Anything that Abiy is going to use to maintain its chokehold on our people, we’ll make sure it doesn’t pose a serious problem,” he said.
On Friday pro-TPLF forces were in “hot pursuit” of Amhara regional forces who had headed north from Lalibela to the town of Sekota, Getachew said.
He reiterated his position that the TPLF does not have designs on holding territory in Amhara and Afar and is instead focused on facilitating aid access.
It remains committed, though, to retaking areas of western and southern Tigray that have been occupied by Amhara forces since the war’s early stages, he said.
Amhara leaders have rejected calls by the US and other world powers to exit those territories, claiming they historically fall under Amhara control.
Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s spokeswoman, told a news conference on Thursday that more than 300,000 people had been displaced by recent fighting in Amhara and Afar.
Abiy’s government has long accused foreign, especially Western, leaders of overlooking crimes committed by the TPLF, and Billene said the TPLF “continues to play” some foreign observers “like a ventriloquist”.
“I hope that the international community at this juncture will begin to wake up and see this organisation for what it is: a terrorist organisation that has hijacked the wellbeing of the people of Tigray as a means for its vicious goals,” she said.
Officials did not confirm on Thursday that Lalibela was under the TPLF’s control.
“There is no need to name the taken places because fighting is taking place on three fronts,” Amhara regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh said earlier this week.
“But what I would like to underline is that the terrorist TPLF clearly invaded Amhara lands or areas in three war fronts.”