An annual cultural event in the Oromiya region of Ethiopia, attended annually by hundreds of thousands, turned deadly Sunday when police fired teargas and warning shots to disperse anti-government protesters.
The tear gas caused a panic and triggered a stampede in Bishoftu, a town about 40 kilometers southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, and local officials reported that 52 people were killed. But witnesses told VOA at least 100 lost their lives.
The witnesses said those at the festival - known as Irreecha - were angered during the speech of an Oromo traditional leader known as the Abba Gadaa and objected to the flag near the stage representing the Ethiopian government. A group of young people rushed the stage and tried to remove the flag, and security forces responded by beating the protesters. Soldiers fired tear gas and people panicked and ran for safety.
“I have been celebrating Irreecha for about 10 years but this year’s event was filled with tension,” an eyewitness told VOA. “There were a lot of police who surrounded the city. People were chanting ‘we don’t want it,’ rejecting the current government and said that they want their own administration and opposed the government.” The witness, who declined to be named, also said helicopters hovered over Bishoftu Lake during the event, adding to the tension.
In a statement broadcast on national television, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the disruption was intentionally caused by people within the event seeking to cause chaos. He denied that government forces used live rounds.
“This is a very sad situation. The government would like to express its deepest condolences to those who lost their lives during the event, and I would like to extend that to their loved ones, families and all Ethiopians,” Desalegn said. “It is saddening to see that forces behind this disruption are acting outside the Oromo people’s culture and are disrespecting the Oromo people.”
The death toll was exacerbated by the fact that the area of the festival has steep drop-offs and pits. Videos show people fleeing and falling into deep ditches. Observers fear the current death toll could rise. A witness in nearby Debre Zeit Hospital called the scene there “horrific” and claimed some of the injuries were the result of violence by security forces.
“The hospital compound and tents are filled with bodies of people,” the witness told VOA. “There are people on the verge of death and there are some people getting medical attention, but I don’t think they will make it. The cause of the deaths is because security forces were beating people. They used tear gas and used weapons. People were protesting saying 'why are you using force against us' and then people ran away and fell into ditches.”
During the past year, tensions have been high between the Oromo people and the federal government. Oromo protesters were angered last November by a plan to expand the limits of the capital city which encroached on the farmlands and regional government of the Oromo people. Some Oromo leaders are pushing for increased autonomy. During the event a loud chant of “down, down Woyane” could be heard after a protester grabbed the microphone. “Woyane” is a colloquial term used to describe the ruling party in Ethiopia.
Tigist Geme, Tsion Girma contributed to this report