Fighting rages in Ethiopia’s historic Lalibela: residentsWed, 08 Nov 2023 15:44:49 GMT

The historic Ethiopian town of Lalibela was rocked Wednesday by fierce fighting between federal government forces and a regional militia, residents said.The Amhara regional “self-defence” group known as Fano appeared to have overrun much of the town, including its centuries-old rock-hewn churches, a UNESCO World Heritage site, they told AFP.It is not the first time Lalibela has been caught up in combat between the Ethiopian National Defence Force and Fano that first flared in Amhara earlier this year.”Fighting began this morning around 8:00 (0500 GMT),” a church deacon told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “The city is already controlled by Fano.”Neither the federal and Amhara regional authorities nor the army responded to AFP’s requests for comment about the situation.The casualty toll was not immediately known, although the deacon earlier spoke of some civilians being wounded.Although the Amhara militias fought alongside federal troops in the two-year conflict in neighbouring Tigray, tensions boiled over after Addis Ababa announced in April it was dismantling regional forces across Ethiopia.The move led to protests by Amhara nationalists who said it would weaken their region, and later triggered clashes that have renewed concerns about the fragility of Africa’s second most populous nation.- ‘Fano are everywhere’ -“Last night Fano approached Lalibela from four directions and fighting started this morning around 8:00,” another resident told AFP.”Fano are everywhere, around the churches, in the old town,” he said. “We can still hear fighting around the ENDF camp on the edge of town.”Both the deacon and the resident reported continuing gunfire mid-afternoon at the edge of town where the army camp is located.They said the airport, which lies about 10 kilometres (six miles) southwest of Lalibela, appeared to still be in the hands of the ENDF.It is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground as media access to Amhara is heavily restricted.”Fighting has not ended yet,” said another resident, adding that heavy artillery was being used. “Parts of the town have been seized back by Fano, the ENDF routed to the outskirts.”A diplomatic source said combat had intensified in Amhara over the past four days, notably in several areas about 100 kilometres south of the regional capital Bahir Dar on the main road to Addis Ababa.- Rights violations -Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government imposed a six-month state of emergency in early August to try to quell the Amhara clashes, and a few days later said it had wrested back control of major towns and cities from Fano including Lalibela.But the situation remains highly volatile and Fano continues to carry out attacks from the countryside.Lalibela’s 11 monolithic churches, which date back to the 12th century, are a magnet for tourists and pilgrims from across Ethiopia and the world, and the site hosts major Orthodox Christian religious festivals.But the town was also at the centre of a fierce struggle between the warring sides during the Tigray conflict, changing hands several times.Amhara is the second most populous region of Ethiopia with about 25 million inhabitants, and the Amhara were once the nation’s economic and political elite.A mosaic of more than 80 ethno-linguistic communities, Ethiopia has in recent years been troubled by sometimes deadly violence over identity and territorial claims.In September, a now defunct UN-backed rights commission warned that “hostilities in Ethiopia are now at a national scale, with significant violations increasing particularly in Amhara region, but also ongoing in Oromia and elsewhere”.The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) — an independent federal state body — also said last week that the use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardment in Amhara had killed, injured and displaced many civilians.It condemned the “executions of arrested civilians” by security forces and the assassinations and abductions of local civilian leaders by armed groups.