ADDISABABA -Rebellious Tigrayan forces have recaptured the Ethiopian town of Lalibela, witnesses told Reuters on Sunday, less than two weeks after the military and its allies took control of it as part of a broader offensive that pushed back Tigrayan forces on multiple fronts.
Lalibela is a town in the Amhara region bordering the northern region of Tigray that is famed for its churches hewn from single lumps of rock and has been designated a U.N. World Heritage site.
Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and a military spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the reported recapture of the town by forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda also did not respond to a Reuters phone call seeking comment. He tweeted a comment saying “our forces are doing very, very, very good!” but gave no details.
One of the witnesses who spoke to Reuters said that Amhara forces, who are allies of the Ethiopian 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, a hotel receptionist, said by phone.
A second witness told Reuters on Sunday that residents had begun fleeing the town. “We panicked, we never saw this coming. TPLF forces are now patrolling the town wearing their uniforms,” the witness said.
Tigrayan forces had taken control of the town in early August, as part of a push into Amhara territory that began in July. But the tide turned against the Tigrayans at the end of November after they had threatened to march on the capital.
The government declared a state of emergency and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed went to the frontlines to direct an offensive. On Dec. 1, the Ethiopian military and Amhara forces recaptured Lalibela, a site of enormous religious significance.
The year-old conflict between the federal government and the leadership of Tigray has killed thousands of civilians, forced millions to flee their homes, and made more than 9 million people dependent on food aid.
On Sunday, Ethiopian Minister of Education Birhanu Nega said Amhara would need over 11 billion birr ($220 million) to rebuild 4,000 educational institutions and schools that he said were destroyed by Tigrayan forces.
Ethiopian state television has also published pictures of what it described as the looting of a hospital in the town of Dessie by Tigrayan forces. Footage showed empty shelves and boxes of medicines and equipment destroyed or strewn on the floor.
Reuters was unable to reach the TPLF spokesperson for a comment.