52 people confirmed killed after stampede breaks out at religious festival in Ethiopia

People hold up crossed wrists in a popular gesture of anti-government protest. Picture by Associated Press
Elias Meseret, Associated Press

A TOTAL of 52 people have been confirmed killed in a stampede in Ethiopia after police tried to disperse an anti-government protest at a religious festival.

The Oromia regional government confirmed the death toll late on Sunday.

The government is also declaring three days of national mourning.

The stampede occurred in one of the east African country's most politically sensitive regions Oromia.

It has seen months of sometimes deadly demonstrations demanding wider freedoms.

Dozens of people were crushed after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protest.

An estimated two million people were attending the annual Irrecha thanksgiving festival in the town of Bishoftu, south-east of the capital, Addis Ababa, when people began chanting slogans against the government, according to witnesses.

The chanting crowds pressed toward a stage where religious leaders were speaking, the witnesses said, and some threw rocks and plastic bottles. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and people tried to flee. Some were crushed in nearby ditches, witnesses said.

Ethiopia's government initially acknowledged that deaths had occurred but did not say how many were killed and injured. Through a spokesman, it blamed "people that prepared to cause trouble".

Many people were taken to hospitals, the spokesman's office said.

Mulatu Gemechu with the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, said he thought the death figure would rise.The protesters were peaceful, Mr Gemechu said.

Before the stampede, an AP reporter saw small groups of people walking in the crowd and holding up their crossed wrists in a popular gesture of protest.

The reporter also saw police firing tear gas and, later, several injured people.

Ethiopia's government, a close security ally of the West, has been accused often of silencing dissent, at times blocking internet access.

The months of anti-government protests and the sometimes harsh government response have raised international concern.

The US recently spoke out against what it called the excessive use of force against protesters, describing the situation in Ethiopia as "extremely serious".

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access