Tigrayan rebels regained control on Sunday of Lalibela, an iconic town in northern Ethiopia that is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, eleven days after the government announced it had seized it.
Residents contacted Sunday afternoon by AFP said fighters from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) had entered the town in the Amhara region.
"They are in the city center, there has been no fighting," said one resident. Another said, "They have come back. They are already here.
On Sunday evening, the Tigrai-TV channel, linked to the TPLF, announced that Tigrayan troops "have taken Lalibela airport and the town of Lalibela", as well as Gashena, a town located some 60 km to the south.
The government did not immediately respond to requests from AFP.
Communications are cut off in the fighting zones and access for journalists is restricted, making independent verification of positions on the ground difficult.
On December 1, the government announced that it had recaptured Lalibela, a town famous for its monolithic churches, which had fallen under rebel control in August.
AFP visited the town last week, when it was secured by Amhara special forces and fighters from the Amhara Fano militia.
According to the second witness interviewed on Sunday, these pro-government forces have moved south towards Gashena, where fighting has been reported in recent days.
Earlier Sunday, a statement from the TPLF military leadership said its fighters had "conducted comprehensive counter-offensives" at several points, including along the road from Lalibela to Gashena.
"Our forces first defended and then conducted counter-offensives against the huge force attacking the Gashena front and surrounding areas and managed to achieve a glorious and unexpected victory," the statement added.
- "Fear" -
In Lalibela on Sunday, "most people are afraid," said one of the residents interviewed: "Some are running away. Most people have already left because there might be revenge. We expressed our happiness when (the TPLF) left.
The government has been conducting a "counter-offensive" in recent weeks to retake ground from the rebels, whom it has been fighting for more than a year in northern Ethiopia.
The war broke out in november 2020 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the army into the northern region of Tigray to remove local authorities from the TPLF who were challenging his authority and whom he accused of attacking military bases.
Abiy Ahmed declared victory three weeks later, after taking the regional capital Mekele.
But in June, the TPLF recaptured most of Tigray, then advanced into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, where they claimed in early November to have captured the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, a strategic crossroads on the road to the capital.
On November 25, Abiy Ahmed announced that he would personally go to the front to lead the "counter-offensive.
Since then, the government has announced that it has regained ground, including Dessie and Kombolcha. The TPLF, for its part, claims not to have been defeated militarily but to have made strategic withdrawals.
- Abiy returns to the frontline -
Returning to Addis Ababa on Wednesday, Abiy Ahmed returned to the frontline, the Prime Minister's Office announced in a tweet on Saturday evening.
The government also claimed to have retaken several areas of Afar and Amhara. In particular, it announced that it had "cut the main highway" between the town of Woldiya and Mekele.
The more than 13 months of conflict have ravaged northern Ethiopia and plunged 9.4 million people "into a critical situation of food assistance", according to the UN.
The UN estimates that 5.2 million people need emergency food assistance in Tigray, 3.7 million in Amhara and 534,000 in Afar.