Ethiopia mourns 52 killed in festival stampede

Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Ethiopia on Oct 2, 2016.
Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Ethiopia on Oct 2, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - Ethiopia began three days of national mourning on Monday (Oct 3) for 52 people who were killed in a stampede at a religious festival after police clashed with anti-government protesters, according to state-controlled media.

The country's Oromo community had gathered on Sunday in the town of Bishoftu near the capital Addis Ababa for their Irreecha (thanksgiving) ceremony to mark the end of the rainy season.

Chaos erupted after police charged protesters among those at the festival and fired tear gas, triggering a stampede.

The regional government said in a statement that 52 people had died after panic swept through the massive crowd, with some festival-goers falling into a deep ravine.

An opposition leader said he believed the real toll was much higher, possibly more than 100.

The national flag was being flown at half-mast in government institutions and regular radio programmes were replaced with music as the nation mourned those killed.

The regional government blamed "irresponsible forces" for the disaster.

Ethiopia is facing its biggest anti-government unrest in a decade and the festival at a sacred lake quickly turned political, with participants chanting and crossing their wrists above their heads, a gesture that has become a symbol of protest by the Oromo.

"The annual Irreecha festival has been disrupted due to a violence created by some groups... Loss of lives has occurred due to a stampede," said a government statement.

As the heaving crowd chanted slogans for freedom, some protesters lobbed stones and bottles at security forces who responded with baton charges and volleys of tear gas.

There were some reports of gunfire.

Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, told AFP he believed there had been many more fatalities than the number officially announced.

"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 100," said Gudina.

Oromo activists called for "five days of rage" to protest the deaths while a strong police presence was visible as the news of the day's events spread.

As the disaster unfolded Sunday, police demanded that AFP's photographer leave the scene, where rubber bullets were seen strewn on the ground.

"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 Jafar on Sunday, referring to the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front.

In 1991 the TPLF, then a rebel group, overthrew dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, 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.

The anti-government protests started in the central and western Oromo region in 2015 and spread in recent months to the northern Amhara region.

"For the last 25 years the Oromo people have been marginalised in many things. Today we come together as one to chant for our freedom," said one of the people at the festival, Habte Bulcha.

Together, Oromos and Amharas make up 60 percent of the population of the Horn of Africa nation 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.