Forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region took control of Lalibela, whose famed rock-hewn churches are a UN World Heritage Site and residents were fleeing, eyewitnesses told Reuters.
Lalibela, also a holy site for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, is in the North Wollo Zone of Amhara region. In recent weeks fighting spread from Tigray to neighbouring Amhara and Afar forcing around 250 000 people to flee.
Senior officials from the UN and the US in Ethiopia this week raised alarm at the widening of the war in Tigray to other parts of northern Ethiopia.
Seyfu, a resident of Lalibela said he saw hundreds of armed men speaking Tigrinya, the language of ethnic Tigrayans, walking through town. He said they were not speaking Amharic, the language of Lalibela and were wearing “different uniforms” to those of the federal military.
Seyfu said forces from the Amhara region, allied to Ethiopia’s central government, fled on Wednesday with local officials.
“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, he was begging them to stay and protect civilians,” he said.
A second man, Dawit, he left Lalibela as Tigrayan forces were arriving. “We had to walk, around 200 of us left.”
Daniel, a third resident of Lalibela, saw hundreds of soldiers entering town around noon. He fled to the mountains outside the holy city and there were only women and children left in town.
He said there was no fighting in Lalibela when Tigrayan forces entered.
The US called on Tigrayan forces to respect the cultural heritage of the town, as Washington grows increasingly alarmed over the widening of the conflict.
“We’ve seen the reports Tigrayan forces have taken Lalibela. We call on the TPLF to protect this cultural heritage,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Lalibela is a major tourist destination in Africa’s second-most 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).
Government declared victory at the end of November after seizing regional capital Mekelle. The TPLF kept fighting and at the end of June retook the city and most of Tigray after government forces withdrew.
Dr Fanta Mandefro, deputy president of Amhara region, told Reuters he had no information on the situation in Lalibela, east of the Amhara capital, Bahir Dar.