Forces from Ethiopia's Tigray region have taken control of the town of Lalibela, the site of several centuries-old underground churches, amid a widening counter-offensive by the northern rebels that threatens to tear the country apart.
Eyewitnesses told Reuters on Thursday that residents were fleeing the area, a holy site for millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, amid advances by rebel fighters from the nearby Tigray region.
The forces of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels have gone on the offensive in the Amhara and Afar regions after a game-changing recapture of their northern territory, which was attacked in November by government troops, ethnic Amhara militants and forces from neighbouring Eritrea.
A man calling himself Seyfu, who is a resident of Lalibela, told Reuters by phone that he had witnessed hundreds of armed men speaking Tigrinya, the language of ethnic Tigrayans, as they walked through the town on Thursday.
They wore uniforms that were different from those of federal troops, said Seyfu. Forces from the Amhara region, which are allied to Ethiopia’s central government, fled the town on Wednesday night together 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,” said Seyfu.
“They shot dead a friend of mine while they fled. He was begging them to stay to protect civilians.”
Other witnesses told Reuters they had seen Tigrayan forces arriving in Lalibela as they left the holy city.
Amhara Deputy President Fanta Mandefro told AFP that TPLF forces were pushing "deep" into Amhara territory and hinted at possible retaliation.
"I believe now enough is enough. Because the TPLF is no more in Tigray. The TPLF is moving deep into Amhara territory," said Mr Mandefro. "We need to defend our people."
Representatives for the prime minister, the Ethiopian military and the TPLF were not available for comment.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price urged the TPLF to safeguard the 13th-century monolithic cave churches that were placed on Unesco's list of global heritage sites in 1978.
“Lalibela represents part of Ethiopia's unique, diverse and rich cultural heritage, and it's something that should serve to unite all Ethiopians,” Mr Price told reporters on Thursday.
“We’ve seen the reports that Tigrayan forces have taken Lalibela. We call on the TPLF to protect this cultural heritage.”
Lalibela, some 650 km north of the capital Addis Ababa, is a major tourist draw in Africa's second most populous nation. Visitor numbers dropped after fighting erupted in November in Tigray between the federal government and the TPLF.
Tens of thousands of visitors from Ethiopia and overseas typically visit Lalibela on Orthodox Easter, the most important holiday on the Orthodox calendar, to view the town’s 11 Rock-Hewn Churches.
Heritage conservation has become a hot-button issue in modern warfare, notably after the rampant destruction of historic sites and artefacts by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There was no indication that the mostly Christian Tigrayan forces had damaged any churches in Lalibela.
Senior officials from the UN and the US government who visited Ethiopia this week raised alarm over the widening of the war in Tigray to other parts of northern Ethiopia.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters the UN was “aware that there’s been a spillover” of the conflict and urged the “parties to solve this situation through political means”.
Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by violence since November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to topple the ruling TPLF in response to what he said were attacks by the group on federal army camps.
Mr Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, declared victory within weeks after government forces took the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, but TPLF leaders remained on the run and fighting continued.
In a stunning reversal of the conflict in late June, pro-TPLF forces re-entered Mekelle. Mr Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire and the army mostly pulled out of the region. The rebels then pushed on into Amhara and Afar, displacing tens of thousands of people.