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Dozens feared dead in stampede at Ethiopia religious festival

People disperse after the stampede in Bishoftu on October 2. Photograph: (AFP)

AFP Bishoftu, Oromia, Ethiopia Oct 02, 2016, 05.22 PM (IST)


Dozens of people are feared dead in a stampede in Ethiopia's Oromia region after police fired tear gas at anti-government protesters disrupting an annual thanksgiving festival.

 

Opposition groups put the death toll above 100. Thousands of people had gathered at a sacred lake in the town of Bishoftu near the capital Addis Ababa, international news agency AFP reported.

 

Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, confirmed the reports about the death toll and said: "Bodies are being collected by the government. But what I hear from people on the ground is that the number of dead is more than one hundred." 

 

Meanwhile, state media published a government statement saying: "The annual Irreecha (thanksgiving) festival has been disrupted due to a violence created by some groups. Loss of lives has occurred due to a stampede." 

 

Thousands from the Oromo community gather each year to take part in the Irreecha ceremony on the shores of Lake Harsadi to mark the end of the rainy season.

 

An AFP photographer said that festival participants had crossed their wrists above their heads, a gesture that has become a symbol of Oromo anti-government protests which began in 2015 and have since spread to the northern Amhara region of Ethiopia. A strong police presence was visible in the vicinity as the news of the day's events spread. 

 

The event then quickly degenerated, with protesters throwing stones and bottles and security forces responding with baton charges and then tear gas grenades. The tear gas caused panic and at least 50 people fell on top of each other into a ditch, the AFP reported. The AFP photographer said earlier he saw between 15 and 20 bodies that were not moving, some clearly dead.

 

Activists in Oromo have called for "five days of rage" to protest the killings. 

 

Ethiopia is facing its biggest anti-government protests in a decade. The protests started in the central and western Oromo region in 2015 and have recently to the northern Amhara region. 

 

The Oromos and Amharas make up for 60 per cent of the population and have become increasingly vocal in rejecting what they see as the disproportionate power wielded by the northern Tigrean minority in government and the security forces.

 

"This government is a dictatorship, there is no equality or freedom of speech. There is only TPLF. That’s why we must protest today," said Mohamed, referring to the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front. The TPLF, which was earlier a rebel group came to power in 1991 after overthrowing Mengistu Haile Mariam's dictatorship and now, as a political party is accused of monopolising power.

 

(WION with inputs from agencies)

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