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By Faith Nyasuguta 

The historic town of Lalibela has been recaptured by rebels from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, witnesses have revealed.

As the UN world heritage site swapped hands, there was no exchange of fire, they added.

In August, the town which is a home to ancient rock-hewn churches, had been captured by Tigrayan forces but they lost control to the federal government a few days ago.

In recent times, the government forces said it had made strides in the year-long civil war that has spurred a humanitarian crisis.

The northern part of Ethiopia is currently facing mass starvation with over nine million people in need of critical food supplies in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, the UN says.

Lalibela /Courtesy/

An onlooker told Reuters that the government troops had started leaving the historic town 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 was quoted as saying.

Via a statement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said it had launched “widespread counter-offensives”, even in Gashena town, near Lalibela.

TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda tweeted:

“Our forces are doing very, very, very good!”

So far, the government has not commented on the issue. However, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office via twitter said he had returned to the front line and government troops had seized a number of strategic towns on the road to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.

According to Lalibela residents, the Tigrayan forces made life difficult for them during their time in the town between August and November despite them respecting the holy sites.

The forces are reported to have demanded food and mobile telephones. They further looted medical stores, according to the AFP.

One witness who spoke on Sunday indicated that the majority of the people had left the town “because there might be revenge. We expressed our happiness before when the [Tigrayans] left.”

Lalibela is a UNESCO heritage site /Courtesy/

There are 11 monolithic cave churches in Lalibela, carved out of rock during the 12th and 13th Centuries and designated a Unesco world heritage site in 1978.

Over a year ago, war broke out between government troops and the TPLF, which has dominated Ethiopia for decades and now controls most of Tigray.

Saying the TPLF has attacked army camps, the Prime Minister sent troops into the Tigray region to topple the TPLF.

However in June this year, the rebels mounted a comeback and recaptured most of Tigray and advanced into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.

With fear that the rebels were approaching the capital, Addis Ababa, nations including the US and UK in November urged their citizens to leave Ethiopia.

Since that time, the government army has recaptured a number of key towns on the road leading to the capital.

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Faith Nyasuguta