By Dawit Endeshaw and Giulia Paravicini
ADDIS ABABA / NAIROBI (Reuters) – Fighting broke out on Wednesday between the army and a regional militia in Ethiopia’s mediaeval holy city of Lalibela, a World Heritage site, four residents told Reuters, but the government said the area was peaceful.
Fano, a part-time militia in the northern Amhara region which has no formal command structure, has been battling the army since late July.
It captured Lalibela, famous for its rock-hewn churches, and Gondar, the second-biggest city in Amhara, for several days in August before being repulsed.
The fighting, which has killed hundreds of people, is the biggest security challenge faced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since the Tigray war ended a year ago.
“Fighting broke out (in Lalibela) an hour ago and I am now hiding in my home,” one resident said by telephone, with the crackle of gunfire in the background.
A deacon at one of Lalibela’s 11 churches, which date back to the 12th and 13th centuries and are a major attraction for Coptic Christians and tourists alike, said the fighting started around 8 a.m. “in all parts of the city”.
A metal shelter built to protect one of the churches had been hit three times by stray gunfire, he said.
“They are using all kinds of weapons. I could feel the vibrations,” the deacon said.
Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu disputed the reports of violence, saying that the city and its surroundings were peaceful.
Fano fighters backed Ethiopian troops during the two-year civil war in Tigray, but relationships soured over disputed land in western and southern Tigray, and after the government said it would integrate regional forces into the police and federal army.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, Lalibela’s cave churches were carved out of monolithic blocks to form a “New Jerusalem” after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
The federal army and Amhara’s regional administration did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini and Dawit Endeshaw; Editing by Hereward Holland and Nick Macfie)