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Ethiopia: Tigray forces seize UNESCO site Lalibela

August 5, 2021

The historic town in northern Ethiopia is famous for its 12th-century rock-hewn churches. The US has urged Tigrayan forces to "protect this cultural heritage" and to end the violence.

A view of the rock-hewn UNESCO protected Church of Saint Emmanuel where Ethiopian Orthodox Christians gather during for the annual festival of Timkat in Lalibela
Lalibela's rock-hewn churches became a World Heritage site in 1978Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. de Souza

Tigrayan forces took control of the historic town of Lalibela in Ethiopia on Thursday, local residents told Reuters and AFP news agencies.

The takeover by the Tigrayan forces comes as fighting in the conflict expands beyond Tigray to the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.

What did local residents say?

"They came in the afternoon, and there was not any fighting. There were no security forces around. The TPLF forces are in the town now," one Lalibela resident told AFP, referring to the Tigray People's Liberation Front. 

Another resident, who goes by Seyfu, told Reuters by phone that the soldiers were speaking Tigrinya, the language of ethnic Tigrayans, and that they were wearing "different uniforms" than the Ethiopian military. 

The town, located in the northern region of Amhara, is a UN World Heritage Site renowned for its rock-hewn churches dating from the 12th century.

A person stands at a Saturday market in Lalibela. They are next to a donkey and a goat.
Lalibela, a popular pilgrimage site, has a majority Orthodox Christian populationImage: Sergi Reboredo/picture alliance

Seyfu said that local Amhara forces allied with the central government fled the area on Wednesday prior to the takeover. 

"We asked them to stay, or at least give us their Kalashnikovs, but they refused and fled taking five ambulances, several trucks and cars. They shot dead a friend of mine while they fled, he was begging them to stay to protect civilians," he said.

Ethiopian government officials have not yet confirmed whether Lalibela was seized by Tigrayan forces. 

The seizure of Lalibela comes as the rebels carry out an offensive against the Ethiopian government in the Amhara and Afar regions, which both border Tigray.

Over 300,000 people have been forced to flee due to the fighting, according to the Ethiopian government. 

US voices concern 

The US State Department on Thursday called on the TPLF to protect the "cultural heritage" in the town. 

International observers have expressed grave concerns about the humanitarian situation in the wider region

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power said Wednesday that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has used "dehumanizing" rhetoric towards Tigrayans, which she says further escalates the conflict. Ahmed has previously called the rebels "weeds" and "cancer." 

Power, who is on a visit to Ethiopia this week, has called on the government to let in foreign aid to the region. She said only 10% of targeted assistance had reached Tigray since mid-July, due to a government blockade.

The UN has previously warned of famine in the region due to fighting and lack of humanitarian supplies. 

Power called on the Tigrayan forces to leave the Afar and Amhara. She said Tigrayan advances negatively impact the amount of humanitarian aid that can reach Tigray. 

The State Department this week also expressed concern about Eritrean refugees in Tigray. These refugees have been reportedly attacked by the TPLF and other Tigrayan militias.

The Ethiopian army has been fighting against the TPLF since November, after Tigrayan forces attacked government military installations in the Tigray region.

Troops from neighboring Eritrea have also fought against the Tigrayan forces, drawing condemnation from the international community. 

wd/rs (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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