Ethiopia stampede: 'At least 50 killed' after police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters

Stampede caused by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets

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The Independent Online

Dozens of people have been killed in a stampede in Ethiopia after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse anti-government protesters at a religious festival.

The opposition party said at least 50 people had died.

An estimated two million people were attending the annual Irrecha event in Bishoftu town, 40km south east of the capital Addis Ababa.

The festival took place in Oromia, one of the country's most sensitive regions, which has seen several months of sometimes deadly protests demanding wider freedoms.


Demonstrators show the Oromo protest gesture sign during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia, 2 October, 2016 (Reuters)

Crowds reportedly chanted "we need freedom" and "we need justice", preventing community elders, deemed close to the government, from delivering their speeches at the festival.

Some protesters waved the red, green and yellow flag of the Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group branded a "terrorist" organisation by the government.

Reports say some threw rocks and plastic bottles, leading police to respond by using tear gas and firing rubber bullets.

The fleeing crowd created a stampede, with some plunging into a deep ditch, witnesses told Reuters.

Ethiopia's government acknowledged the deaths and released a statement to say many people had been taken to hospital.

"As a result of the chaos, lives were lost and several of the injured were taken to hospital," the government communications office said in a statement, without giving figures. 

"Those responsible will face justice."

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Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, told Reuters at least 50 people were killed.

He said the government tried to use the event to show Oromia was calm. "But residents still protested," he added.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces during anti-government protests carried out by the Oromo people since November 2015. 

Last year, human rights groups said up to 50 protesters were killed in a government crack down on protests.

Ethiopian silver medalist marathoner Feyisa Lilesa made an anti-government gesture when he crossed the finish line at the Rio Olympics, in a show of solidarity with the Oromo protests.

He has not returned to the country since, saying his life could be in danger. 

Additional reporting by agencies