Dozens feared dead in Ethiopia stampede

Zacharias Abubeker | 02 Oktober, 2016
People assist an injured protester during Irreecha, the thanks giving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia

People assist an injured protester during Irreecha, the thanks giving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia
Image by: TIKSA NEGERI / REUTERS

Dozens of people were feared dead in a stampede Sunday near the Ethiopian capital after police fired tear gas at protesters during a religious festival, with opposition groups putting the death toll above 100.

The government indicated only that there had been “loss of lives” after thousands of people gathered to take part in the Irreecha ceremony, in which the Oromo community marks the end of the rainy season.

“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,” read a government statement published by state media.

Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, told AFP there had been many fatalities.

“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,” said Gudina.

It was not possible to obtain independent verification of the number of fatalities after the ceremony at a sacred lake in the town of Bishoftu.

Some festival participants had crossed their wrists above their heads, a gesture that has become a symbol of Oromo anti-government protests, according to an AFP photographer.

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 photographer said earlier he saw between 15 and 20 bodies that were not moving, some clearly dead.

Police demanded that the photographer leave the scene, where rubber bullets were strewn on the ground.

Oromo activists called for “five days of rage” to protest the killings while a strong police presence was visible in the vicinity as the news of the day’s events spread.

“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.

In 1991 the TPLF, then a rebel group, overthrew Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship and now, as a political party stands accused of monopolising power.

Every year millions of people in the Oromo region mark the Irreecha festival on the shores of Lake Harsadi, which they consider sacred.

Ethiopia is facing its biggest anti-government protests in a decade. They started in the central and western Oromo region in 2015 and spread in recent months to the northern Amhara region.

Together, Oromos and Amharas make up 60 percent 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.

AFP