A deadly stampede broke out after Ethiopian police reportedly fired tear gas to break up an ethnic Oroma protest with “several” people killed south of the capital, Addis Ababa.
There were conflicting death toll reports following the stampede on Sunday. A government statement said several had been killed in the town of Bishoftu. An AFP photographer at the scene said he saw 15-20 unmoving bodies, some of whom were clearly dead.
Crowds chanted “we need freedom” and “we need justice” and prevented community elders, deemed close to the government, from delivering their speeches at a religious festival, prompting police to fire tear gas that caused the stampede.
Thousands of people gathered for the annual Irreecha festival in Bishoftu, about 40km south of the capital.
Protesters chanted slogans against the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, one of four regional parties that make up the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has ruled the nation for quarter of a century.
Sporadic protests have erupted in Oromia region in the last two years, initially sparked by a land row and increasingly turning more broadly against the government.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, at least 500 people have been killed by security forces since the demonstrations began in November. Though protests started among the Oromo – Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group – they later spread to the Amhara, the second-most largest in the country.
Both groups say the ruling coalition is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group, which makes up only about six percent of the population.
Small protests in Oromia province initially flared in 2014 over a development plan for the capital that would have expanded its boundaries, a move seen as threatening the seizure of farmland.
The government has blamed rebel groups and dissidents abroad for stirring up the protests and provoking violence.
The government has denied that violence from the security forces is systemic, though a spokesman told Al Jazeera that police officers “sometimes take the law into their own hands”, pledging an independent investigation.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front last month rejected a United Nations request to send in observers, saying it alone was responsible for the security of its citizens.