Tigray rebels exceeded Ethiopia’s UNESCO heritage

Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its 13th-century cliffs in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, was taken over by rebels from the nearby Tigray region, residents said on Thursday.

The development came when a senior Amhara official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the rebels, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), pushed “deep” into Amhara territory and hinted at possible reprisals.

“I think now, enough is enough. Because TPLF is no longer in Tigray. TPLF is moving deep into Amhara areas,” said Amhara Vice President Fanta Mandefro.

“We must defend our people,” he added.

At the same time, the TPLF on Friday rejected extensive calls to leave neighboring regions.

“Nothing like this will happen unless the blockade is lifted,” said Getachew Reda, referring to restrictions on humanitarian access.

Getachew said the pressure into Lalibela was part of an effort to secure roads in northern Amhara and prevent government forces from regrouping.

“You see, we are under siege. We are blocked. Everything that Abiy will use to maintain his chokehold on our people, we will make sure that it does not pose any serious problems,” he said.

Getachew reiterated its position that the TPLF does not have patterns of holding territory in Amhara and Afar and instead focuses on facilitating access to aid.

The TPLF’s week-long drive beyond Tigray has drawn criticism from world leaders and, according to Ethiopian officials, displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Tigray has been battling since November last year when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to overthrow the TPLF, the regional ruling party that dominated national politics before Abiy took office in 2018.

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

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

Since then, TPLF has pushed east to neighbors Afar and Amhara, where Lalibela is located.

Soldiers and militia fighters have mobilized en masse in parts of Amhara to stave off the rebels’ advance, but several Lalibela residents told AFP on Thursday that the city fell without a fight.

“They arrived in the afternoon, and there were no battles. There were no security forces around. The TPLF forces are in town now,” said one resident.

“TPLF arrived just in the afternoon. They were dancing and playing in the town square,” said another resident.

“Most people leave the city for remote areas,” said a third resident, adding that he was hiding in his home with his family.

“Terrorist” group

The TPLF’s efforts in neighboring regions have provoked global criticism, and the UN also reiterates its call for all parties to end hostilities.

Abi’s spokesman Billene Seyoum told a news conference on Thursday that more than 300,000 people had been displaced by fighting in Amhara and Afar recently.

Abiy’s government has long accused foreign, especially Western leaders, of ignoring crimes committed by the TPLF, and Billene said on Thursday that the TPLF “continues to play” some foreign observers “like a belly talker.”

“I hope that by this time the international community will begin to wake up and see this organization for what it is: a terrorist organization that has hijacked the well – being of the people of Tigray as a means to an end to its vicious goals,” she said.

Officials did not immediately confirm Thursday that Lalibela was under TPLF control.

Fanta, Amhara’s deputy president, said late Thursday that he had no information on the latest troop movements.

He said the region was struggling to accommodate more than 200,000 newly displaced civilians, some of whom had been forced to relocate several times to avoid fighting.

“The situation is very sad, pregnant women are delivering in the rain. Children are born in the rain showers,” he said.

“It goes beyond imagination to describe the current situation in which the displaced people live. It is the rainy season, the conflict continues, it is uninterrupted … The government is trying to defend and stop the TPLF but it is very difficult.”

Regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh said some civilians had been killed, although he did not give a figure.

Heavy fighting

The Amhara city of Kobo, located about 100 kilometers east of Lalibela, is also under TPLF control after days of heavy fighting, an Amhara militia told AFP this week.

“The war was accompanied by heavy artillery. We were armed with Kalashnikovs but they fired mortar and used snipers,” said militia member Eskindir Molla, who has since retreated south to the town of Woldiya.

“The TPLF opened fire on four fronts, and we fought for five days,” he added.

“The people who are still there (in Kobo) are asking us to go back to save them. They are currently in a desperate state.”

The TPLF has said it does not intend to expand territorial gains beyond the Tigray and is instead trying to “degrade” the soldiers and militia soldiers heading north.

However, it has promised to “liberate” southern and western Tigray, parts of the region occupied by Amhara forces and officials in the early stages of the war.

World leaders, meanwhile, are urging the TPLF to commit to a ceasefire to facilitate aid delivery in Tigray, where the UN estimates that fighting has driven 400,000 people into starvation.


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