Many dead in anti-government protest at religious festival

October 2, 2016

bishoftu_irechaGuardian – Opposition party says stampede kills at least 50 people in chaotic scenes in restive Oromiya region

Scores of people are feared dead after police in Ethiopia fired teargas and warning shots to disperse anti-government protesters at a religious festival, triggering a stampede.

Opposition parties said at least 50 people had died at the festival on Sunday in the restive Oromiya region, and other witnesses put the toll higher.

The government said “lives were lost”, without giving a number, and said several people had been injured. A spokesman blamed “people that prepared to cause trouble”.

There have been sporadic protests in Oromiya over the last two years. Last year plans to allocate land surrounding Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, for development prompted fierce demonstrations from members of Oromo minority, the country’s largest ethnic group. Many of those who would have been displaced by the new scheme were Oromo. The scheme was scrapped in January but protests continued.

Several rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported that up to 400 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters, the country’s worst unrest in more than a decade.

IrrechaThe deaths on Sunday occurred in the town of Bishoftu, about 25 miles (40km) south of Addis Ababa. Hundreds of thousands of people had gathered at a sacred lake for the annual Irreecha festival of thanksgiving. Crowds chanting “we need freedom” and “we need justice” prevented community elders, seen as close to the government, from delivering speeches.

Some protesters reportedly waved the red, green and yellow flag of the Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group branded a terrorist organisation by the government. According to witnesses, protesters threw stones and bottles and security forces responded with baton charges and then teargas grenades.

The teargas caused panic and at least 50 people fell on top of each other into a deep ditch. Images from the scene showed dozens of men trying to climb out of a trench that appeared to be at least 6 metres (20ft) deep.
Witnesses said they saw people dragging out a dozen or more victims showing no obvious sign of life. Half a dozen people were seen being taken by pickup truck to a hospital, one witness said.

“As a result of the chaos, lives were lost and several of the injured were taken to hospital,” the government’s communications office said in a statement. “Those responsible will face justice.”

Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, told Reuters his group had been talking to families of the victims and it was thought at least 50 people were dead. He said the government had tried to use the event to show Oromiya was calm. “But residents still protested,” he said.