August 5, 2021
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -Forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region have taken control of the town of Lalibela, whose famed rock-hewn churches are a United Nations World Heritage Site, and residents were fleeing, two eyewitnesses told Reuters on Thursday.
Lalibela, also a holy site for millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, is in the North Wollo Zone of the Amhara region in Ethiopia’s north. In recent weeks fighting has spread from Tigray into two neighbouring regions, Amhara and Afar, forcing around 250,000 people to flee.
Seyfu, a resident of Lalibela who spoke to Reuters by phone, said he saw hundreds of armed men speaking Tigrinya, the language of ethnic Tigrayans, walking through the town on Thursday. He 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 second man, Dawit, told Reuters by phone he left Lalibela on Thursday morning as Tigrayan forces were arriving. “We had to walk with on foot, around 200 of us left.”
Reuters could not independently verify the eyewitnesses’ information. Spokespeople for the prime minister, the Ethiopian military and a government task force on Tigray could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lalibela is a major tourist destination in Africa’s secondmost populous nation. Visitor numbers plunged after war broke out in November in Tigray between the federal army and forces belonging to the Tigray People’s Liberation Forces (TPLF).
The government declared victory at the end of that month, after seizing the regional capital Mekelle. But the TPLF kept fighting and at the end of June retook Mekelle and most of Tigray after government soldiers withdrew.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom and Giulia Paravicini in Olbia, Italy; Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Boyle)