Rebel forces from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region took control of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lalibela. The town is famed for its rock-hewn monolithic cave churches that were built as a substitute for pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and is a holy site for millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians
Eyewitnesses and local officials have reported people fleeing the area in hordes. Mandefro Tadesse, the deputy mayor of Lalibela, told the BBC that the town was under the control of the rebels. He expressed concern for the churches, but also said that no shootings had taken place yet.
The town is located in the North Wollo Zone of the Amhara region in Ethiopia’s north. Fighting between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethopian forces has spread from Tigray into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, causing almost 250,000 people to flee.
Residents of Lalibela spoke to Reuters on the phone and claimed seeing hundreds of armed men speaking Tigrinya, the language of ethnic Tigrayans, instead speaking Amharic, the language of the people of Lalibela. They were also seen wearing uniforms different from the federal military.
Others claimed that forces from the Amhara region, who were allied with the Ethiopian government, fled on Wednesday.
Both the United Nations and Washington have expressed concern over the situation in the region, especially the widening of the war to other areas of northern Ethiopia. The US State Department called on Tigrayan forces to respect the cultural heritage of Lalibela.
The TPLF have taken over significant amounts of land in June, including the Tigray regional capital Mekelle after Ethiopian troops withdrew.
Fighting broke out after the TPLF was ousted as the regional government of Tigray by federal forces last November. The rebel group has been branded a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government, however the rebels claim that they are the legitimate regional government of Tigray.
The government claims that more than 300,000 people have been displaced in Amhara and Afar. The UN has also shed light on the situation, saying that 175 lorries carrying humanitarian aid had arrived in Tigray.
The situation is still alarming for the international community, and aid workers; the head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned that more than 100 lorries were needed every day to reach those in need.
Bureaucratic and security hurdles stand in the way of aid workers accessing various areas of Tigray.