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05.08.2021 Africa

Tigray rebels take control of UNESCO site Lalibela: residents

By AFP
World heritage: The church of St. Mercurius is one of Lalibela's rock-hewn treasures (2019 file picture).  By EDUARDO SOTERAS (AFP/File)
LISTEN AUG 5, 2021
World heritage: The church of St. Mercurius is one of Lalibela's rock-hewn treasures (2019 file picture). By EDUARDO SOTERAS (AFP/File)

Rebels from Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region on Thursday seized Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the neighbouring Amhara region famed for its 12th-century rock-hewn churches, residents told AFP.

"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," said one resident, referring to the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

Tigray has been wracked by fighting since last November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to topple the TPLF, the regional ruling party which dominated national politics before Abiy took office in 2018.

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.

But while Abiy promised victory would be swift, the war took a stunning turn in June when pro-TPLF forces retook the Tigray capital Mekele and the Ethiopian army largely withdrew.

Since then the TPLF has pressed east into neighbouring Afar and south into neighbouring Amhara, where Lalibela is located.

Soldiers and militia fighters have mobilised en masse in parts of Amhara to head off the rebels' advance, but multiple residents of Lalibela told AFP Thursday that the town fell without a fight.

"The TPLF just arrived in the afternoon. They were dancing and playing in the square of the city," one resident said.

"Most of the people are leaving the town to the remote areas," a third resident said, adding that he was hiding in his home with his family.

The TPLF's push into the neighbouring regions has drawn global criticism, and both the UN and the US this week reiterated calls for all parties to end hostilities.

Billene Seyoum, Abiy's spokeswoman, told a press conference Thursday that more than 300,000 people had been displaced by recent fighting in Amhara and Afar.

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