Fear grips locals in Ethiopia as Tigrayan forces recapture Lalibela

Published : December 15, 2021 16:58 IST

Civilians walk past a military tank destroyed during fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces the roadside in Damot Kebele of Amhara region, Ethiopia. Photo: REUTERS/Kumera Gemechu

Locals say Tigrayan forces took over the Ethiopian town of Lalibela without firing a single shot.

Defiant Tigrayan forces recaptured Ethiopia's historic town of Lalibela on December 12, following what locals described as a battle without bullets. The takeover by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) came less than 12 days after Ethiopian military forces said they had taken control of the city — home to the Rock-Hewn Churches which are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"Our families in the area told us that there was no exchange of fire when the Tigrayan troops marched into Lalibela town," one resident in the area anonymously told DW. The recapture of Lalibela represents another significant episode in the 13-month-long conflict which has killed thousands and triggered a serious humanitarian crisis affecting at least 9.4 million people in the northern region of Africa's second-most populous nation.

Locals flee in fear

In a statement shared with pro-TPLF media, the rebel group's military leadership said they had launched "comprehensive counter-offensives" in numerous locations, including along the road linking the town of Gashena with Lalibela. By the evening of December 12, the TPLF said it had "recaptured Ganesha and its surrounding area, and [had] captured Lalibela airport."

Residents on the ground told DW that many began to flee out of fear of retribution. "Most of the people are scared, some are running away," said one Lalibela local. "Most have already left because there might be an act of revenge. We expressed happiness before when [the Tigrayan forces] left." Another local on the ground said the Tigrayan troops had "searched people's homes and looted weapons and money." "They also beat up the city's residents," they said. "We have confirmed that the residents are suffering."

Tigray Forces announce 'glorious victories'

Late on the evening of Decmeber 13, Tigrayan forces also claimed that they had overrun several Ethiopian military installations, killing thousands of troops. "[We] have carried out comprehensive counter-offensives along Gashena-Lalibela and Kon-Gashina road neutralizing [over] 80,000 [members of the] ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Force), Amhara Special Forces [and the] Fano and Amhara Militia," read part of the statement.

With the majority of communication lines still down in the conflict zone, and limited access for journalists, it is difficult to independently verify these claims. The latest claims of victory from the TPLF came as the Prime Minister's Office tweeted that Ethiopian military forces had captured several strategic locations in the regions of Afar and Amhara, including the towns of Arjo, Fokisa and Boren.

Peace remains elusive

Yonas Ashine, a professor of political science and international relations at Addis Ababa University, told DW that the latest developments on the ground are nothing new in the context of the war. "It doesn't tell a new story," he said. "The capure of one town, one city ... It only tells you that the civil war is ongoing between the two forces." Ashine stressed that without a peace deal the situation will only worsen. "The war is going to elongate for some time until some kind of peace deal is reached," he said. "The war has to stop somewhere," he added. "A kind of agreement or peace deal will stop the war. Most wars end that way.

In their latest report on the conflict, the International Crisis Group (ICG) branded the war "unwinnable" and urged parties to enter "detailed ceasefire talks pending an inclusive national dialogue." "Absent these steps, Ethiopia may be in for years of war," it warned.

No olive branches in sight

Ashine argues that one of the biggest obstacles to peace talks right now is intransigence among all factions. "The government expects a lot of conditions to be fulfilled by rebel groups," he said. "[They] see it as a continuation of law enforcement and it doesn't want to see the TPLF challenging or destabilizing this." Outside the warring parties themselves, ongoing diplomatic efforts from the African Union (A.U.) have also failed to achieve any clear breakthroughs.

In light of continued accusations of human rights violations on all sides of the conflict, the United Nations (U.N.) on December 13 decided to hold a special session on Ethiopia this week and consider whether to appoint internal investigators. "We believe the international community has a moral obligation to try to prevent further atrocities and ensure accountability and justice for victims and survivors," Lotte Knudsen, the European Union (E.U.) ambassador in Geneva said in a statement.

Fears of a rebel march on Addis Ababa last month prompted countries including the U.S., France and Germany, to urge their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible.

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