Ethiopia World heritage site Lalibela back in rebel hands

 Ebel from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have retaken the historic town of Lalibela, witnesses have said.

There was reportedly no exchange of fire as the town, a UN World Heritage site, swapped hands.

Lalibela, home to ancient rock-hewn churches, had been captured by Tigrayan forces in August, but they lost control to the federal government 11 days ago.

Federal forces had recently made gains in the year-long civil war, which has sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Northern Ethiopia is facing mass starvation with more than nine million people in need of critical food supplies in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, the UN says.

One witness told the Reuters agency that forces allied to the federal govern­ment began leaving Lalibela on Saturday night

“The last batch left this morning. We

 heard gunshots from a distance last night but the Tigrayan forces recap­tured Lalibela without firing guns in the town,” the witness is quoted as saying.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency that it had launched “widespread counter-of­fensives”, including in a town called Gashena, near Lalibela.

Last week, local residents told AFP that while the Tigrayan fighters respect­ed the holy sites they made life difficult for the people of the town, which is in the region of Amhara.

Rebels reportedly demanded food and mobile telephones. They also loot­ed medical stores, AFP reported.

The 11 monolithic cave churches in Lalibela, carved out of rock that in the 12th and 13th Centuries, were designat­ed a Unesco world heritage site in 1978.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been at the front line and after a series of advances told soldiers

 at the end of last month: “The ene­my is defeated. Our remaining task is to rout the enemy and destroy them.”

Fighting broke out over a year ago between government troops and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia for decades and now controls most of Tigray. Mr Abiy sent troops into the Tigray region to quash the TPLF after he said it had attacked army camps.

But in June this year, the rebels mounted a comeback, recaptur­ing most of Tigray and advancing into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar. Fears of the rebels approaching Addis Ababa led several countries, including the US and UK, to urge their citizens to leave Ethiopia last month.

Since then, the federal army has retaken a number of key town on the road leading to the capital. — BBC

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