Ethiopia: Tigray region rebels have taken control of UNESCO World Heritage town of Lalibela

Rebels from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have taken control of the town of Lalibela, a Unesco world heritage site in the neighbouring Amhara region.

Lalibela, home to 13th Century churches hewn from rock, is a holy site for millions of Orthodox Christians.

Thousands have been killed since war broke out last November. Fighting is now spreading into Amhara and Afar, another region bordering Tigray.

Millions of people have also been displaced.

Both the Tigray rebel forces and the Ethiopian army and its allies have been accused of committing human rights abuses and war crimes.

The deputy mayor of Lalibela, Mandefro Tadesse, told reporters that the town was under the control of the Tigray rebels.

He said there had not been any shooting, but residents were fleeing from the town and he was concerned about the safety of the historic churches.

“This is the world’s heritage, and we must cooperate to guarantee that this treasure is preserved,” Mr Mandefro said.

The US State Department called on Tigrayan forces to respect the cultural heritage of Lalibela, as Washington became increasingly concerned over the conflict.

The spreading fighting follows significant territorial gains made by the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in June, including capturing the Tigray regional capital Mekelle after Ethiopian troops withdrew and the government declared a unilateral ceasefire.

The TPLF was the regional government of Tigray until it was ousted by federal forces last November.

It has been designated a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian government. However, the rebels say they are the legitimate regional government of Tigray.

TPLF’s push into Amhara and Afar has drawn international criticism, and both the UN and the US this week called for all parties to stop fighting.

The Ethiopian government says more than 300,000 people have been displaced in Amhara and Afar.

Separately the UN said 175 lorries carrying humanitarian aid had arrived in Tigray.

But the head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned that more than 100 lorries were needed every day to reach the millions who were in need.

Aid workers have struggled to get access to much of Tigray due to insecurity and bureaucratic hurdles.