The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have captured Lalibela Town, a United Nations World Heritage Site in Amhara, North-West Ethiopia.
Lalibela is a major pilgrimage destination for millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians because of its 11 medieval monolithic cave churches carved from rock dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. Originally, they were built as substitutes for pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was unreachable at the time.
The deputy mayor of Lalibela, Mandefro Tadesse, said the TPLF fighters entered the city without fighting or shooting, but people were fleeing and he was worried about the safety of the historic churches.
“This is the world’s heritage, and we must cooperate to guarantee that this treasure is preserved,” Mandefro said.
In recent weeks, the nine-month conflict between the federal forces and the TPLF has spread from Tigray to Amhara and Afar, causing around 250,000 people to flee.
Witnesses said they saw hundreds of armed men speaking Tigrinya, the language of ethnic Tigrayans, walking through the town on Thursday, confirming Lalibela’s capture by the TPLF.
They said they were not speaking Amharic, the language of the people of Lalibela, and were wearing “different uniforms” from those of the federal military.
A witness, identified simply as Seyfu, said Amhara forces, which are allied to Ethiopia, and local officials fled on Wednesday night.
“We asked them to stay or at least give us their Kalashnikovs, but they refused, fleeing with five ambulances, several trucks, and a few cars. They shot and killed a friend of mine as they fled. He was begging them to stay to protect civilians,” he said.
The government declared victory after seizing Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, at the end of that month. However, the TPLF kept fighting and at the end of June retook Mekelle and the majority of Tigray after the government withdrew.
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