BISHOFTU, Ethiopia (AP) — Dozens of people were crushed to death Sunday in a stampede after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse an anti-government protest that grew out of a massive religious festival, witnesses said.
An estimated two million people were attending the annual Irrecha thanksgiving event in Bishoftu town southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa. The event took place in one of the East African country’s most sensitive regions, Oromia, which has seen several months of sometimes deadly protests demanding wider freedoms.
Ethiopia’s government acknowledged deaths during Sunday’s event. Through a spokesman, it blamed “people that prepared to cause trouble.” The spokesman’s office said many people were taken to hospitals. It did not provide figures for deaths or injuries.
Witnesses said the crush began as protesters chanted anti-government slogans and pushed toward a stage where religious leaders were speaking. Some threw rocks and plastic bottles. Police responded by using tear gas and firing rubber bullets.
People tried to flee, but some were crushed in nearby ditches, witnesses said.
Before the stampede, an Associated Press reporter saw small groups of people walking among the massive crowd and holding up crossed wrists in a popular gesture of anti-government protest. The reporter also saw police firing tear gas and, later, several injured people.
The crossed-wrists gesture has been widely used as a sign of peaceful resistance and is meant to symbolize being handcuffed by security forces. The gesture was in the spotlight at the Rio Olympics, when Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa, who is from the Oromia region, crossed his wrists while finishing in second place. He has not returned to the country since, saying his life could be in danger.
Ethiopia’s government, a close security ally of the West, is often accused of silencing dissent, at times blocking internet access nationwide.
The months of anti-government protests in several parts of Ethiopia and the sometimes harsh government response have raised international concern. The United States recently spoke out against what it called the excessive use of force against protesters, describing the situation in the country as “extremely serious.”