ADDIS ABABA - The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) said on Wednesday it had recaptured more than eight towns from the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), including the historic town of Lalibela, helping push the TPLF further back from the capital.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office announced on Wednesday that Lalibela had been liberated, as well as several other towns in Amhara state, including Shewa Robit, the latter of which reversed an attempted drive on Addis Ababa by the TPLF last month.

On November 22, Abiy announced he was heading to the front to take personal control over the military's effort after the TPLF captured Debre Sina, a town just 190 kilometers from the capital, and the TPLF openly weighed the option of marching on the capital; Shewa Robit is 30 kilometers to the north of Debre Sina.

The capture of Lalibela is also notable because of its great historic value: the city was reportedly intended to serve as a "new Jerusalem" by a Zagwe emperor named Gebre Meskel after the Ayyubid Egyptians captured the City of David in 1187. Its churches are hewn from living rock and it's regarded as one of the holiest Christian sites in Ethiopia, as well as being designated a UN World Heritage Site.

"The East Command secured an unimaginable victory in just one day of planning and a day and a half long fighting," Abiy said in a broadcast on Ethiopian television Tuesday evening. "Now we will repeat that victory on this front."

The gains follow others made earlier this week in eastern Afar region, where the ENDF blocked the TPLF's eastward advance by recapturing several important towns, including Chifra, Kasagita, Burka, and Bati, Sputnik reported.

The TPLF launched its offensive into Afar and Amhara states in July after pushing ENDF forces out of the northernmost Tigray state itself. The fighting in Tigray started in November 2020 when Abiy's government declared elections held in spite of a Covid-induced suspension to be illegal and the TPLF launched a sneak-attack on ENDF forces stationed there, seizing equipment and putting government forces on their heels. Neighboring Eritrea soon joined the conflict on Abiy's side and continues to occupy part of northern Tigray.

The TPLF ruled Ethiopia for 27 years until its erstwhile political allies rallied to nominate Abiy, an Oromo, to head the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) political alliance in 2018 instead. Political reforms under Abiy, who became prime minister, have weakened the TPLF's once-dominating power, and experts told Sputnik the group now seeks to turn back the clock.

The US, for whom the TPLF served as a major military partner in Africa, has called for a ceasefire and sanctioned both Eritrea and Ethiopia for supposedly prolonging the conflict. However, secretly recorded video revealed last week that at the same time as the US was calling for peace, its diplomats were meeting with TPLF leaders behind closed doors where they praised the TPLF's military gains and spoke of a post-Abiy "transition government."

A political movement among the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora has staged worldwide protests in recent weeks under the #NoMore hashtag campaign calling for an end to US intervention in the Horn of Africa and to misreporting of facts about the conflict in western media, which they say presents a one-sided view of the conflict that demonizes Abiy's government while ignoring the long history of human rights abuses by the TPLF.

By contrast, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, reiterating both Beijing's hands-off policy with regard to Ethiopian affairs, as well as opposition to meddling in those affairs by other countries.

However, Wang also called for dialogue, a truce, and a political solution to the crisis and pledged China's support for restoring peace under the premise of respect for Ethiopia's sovereignty, according to CGTN.

The conflict has created a massive humanitarian crisis, with more than 70,000 people fleeing across the border into neighboring Sudan and an estimated 4 million more internally displaced, according to United Nations data. There is no reliable death toll for the conflict.