Ethiopian troops force armed group out of Orthodox holy site of Lalibela

Ethiopian defence forces have pushed out Fano fighters to regain control of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One of the centuries-old churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia [Jenna Belhumeur/Al Jazeera]

The Ethiopian army on Thursday regained control of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site, following a pullout by a regional armed group whose fighters had overrun much of the historic town a day earlier.

Fierce fighting broke out on Wednesday morning with Fano fighters taking control of much of Lalibela and pushing the army back to a base on the town’s outskirts.

But the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) regained control on Thursday, residents said.

“Until early morning, Fano controlled most of the town. When we woke up, Fano were finishing leaving the town,” a resident told AFP news agency by phone on condition of anonymity, “I can see ENDF deployed in the streets.”

Other details about the attack remain unclear as media access to the region is severely restricted and government officials are yet to comment on the matter.

Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu had disputed the reports of violence on Wednesday, telling Reuters news agency that the city and its surroundings were peaceful.

Churches in harm’s way

The Amhara region in northern Ethiopia has witnessed regular fighting throughout the year, raising concerns among residents and Amharas in the diaspora about the safety of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The town is a pilgrimage destination for Orthodox Christians.

Lidetu Ayalew, an Amhara politician based in the United States who grew up near Lalibela, said he feared the churches could be harmed. “The churches risk being struck and destroyed due to careless firing of heavy weapons,” he said in a statement on Monday.

Designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations in 1978, Lalibela’s 11 medieval cave churches were carved out of monolithic blocks to form a “New Jerusalem”, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

On Sunday, Ethiopian soldiers fired heavy weapons 11 times from locations near the churches, a deacon said, sending damaging shockwaves through one of the subterranean places of worship.

“The vibrations are affecting the churches,” the deacon said, requesting anonymity for fears of reprisals.

Although Fano fought alongside federal troops in the two-year conflict in neighbouring Tigray, tensions have been rising since April, when the federal government announced it was dismantling regional forces across Ethiopia. The move triggered protests by Amhara nationalists who said the move would weaken their region.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government imposed a six-month state of emergency in early August after fighting erupted in Amhara, raising concerns about Ethiopia’s stability just months after a peace deal ended the brutal Tigray war.

Source: News Agencies