Ethiopia is insisting it has reclaimed the vast, centuries-old Christian town of Lalibela, situated in the countryside about 100 miles northwest of Addis Ababa, where it is renowned for centuries-old caves painted with colorful geometric patterns as well as stalactites and stalagmites.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the government recaptured the area from “terrorists” on Tuesday, the day after it began clearing the Muslim majority region of Hejere, a territory of about 15,000 residents. He described the government’s offensives as counterterrorism operations.
A series of raids in recent years, possibly linked to terrorism, were blamed on militant Muslims, who had threatened the Christian community. The jihadis had also appropriated Christian symbols, leaving graffiti on the town’s ancient churches.
Lalibela, which was declared a World Heritage site in 1988, is famous for the hundreds of intricate caves from the 1st and 2nd centuries that cover the main highway near Hejere. People from across Africa visit the site in large numbers every year.
But there have been signs of tension, as in other Christian communities in the country, such as the southern region of Oromia, known for its socialist-leaning leadership and cultural achievements.
In May, Ethiopian security forces removed some 200 people in a counterterrorism operation, after they had rallied with rock music and pictures of the late Islamist leader Mohamed Hussein Guregn.
More recently, the government has been dealing with a serious public health crisis in the Oromia region.