A stampede has left 52 dead after police attacked protesters during an Ethiopian religious festival. The violence was reportedly triggered when people made anti-government gestures at police, who replied with tear gas.
At least 52 people were crushed to death in a stampede on Sunday after police volleyed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse an anti-government protest.
The regional government in Oromia confirmed the death toll, while opposition groups say more than 100 died as a result.
Witnesses in the town of Bishoftu said police in the Oromia region fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse anti-government protesters at a religious festival to celebrate the end of the rainy season, triggering a stampede that caused numerous deaths.
Some participants reportedly crossed their wrists above their heads, a gesture that has become a symbol of the Oromo anti-government protests, which apparently provoked a violent reaction from security forces, who let loose with tear gas grenades.
The event quickly devolved into chaos, with protesters throwing stones and bottles facing off against riot police, setting off a mass panic.
"I almost died in that place today," one protester told the Associated Press. The man, who gave his name as Elias, said he was dragged out of a deep ditch that many people fell into as they tried to flee.
"Many people have managed to get out alive, but I'm sure many more others were down there," he said, adding that the first to fall in the ditch suffocated. "It is really shocking."
"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. "Those responsible will face justice."
Accounts of casualties often wildly differ following protests and clashes, which have erupted sporadically over the past two years in the Oromia region near the capital, Addis Ababa.
"This government are dictators; there is no equality or freedom of speech. There is only TPLF. That's why we must protest today," a man giving his name as Mohamed told news agency AFP, referring to the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front.
The TPLF, a former rebel militant group, overthrew the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. It has since evolved into a political party that has been accused of monopolizing power and trampling human rights.
Millions of people in the Oromia region mark the annual Irreecha festival on the shores of Lake Harsadi, which they consider sacred.
Ethiopia is facing its most severe anti-government protests in a decade. Trouble started in the central and western Oromia region in 2015. In recent months, it has spread to the northern Amhara region.
Oromos and Amharas make up a combined 60 percent of the population 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.
rs, jar/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)