52 con­firmed dead in stam­pede at re­li­gious event

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Elias Me­seret

BISHOFTU, ETHIOPIA >> 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. The Oro­mia re­gional govern­ment con­firmed the death toll at 52.

“I al­most died in that place to­day,” said one shaken pro­tester who gave his name only as Elias. Mud-cov­ered and shoe­less, he said he had been dragged out of a deep ditch that many peo­ple fell into as they tried to flee.

The first to fall in had suf­fo­cated, he said.

“Many peo­ple have man­aged to get out alive, but I’m sure many more oth­ers were down there,” he said. “It is re­ally shock­ing.”

The stam­pede oc­curred in one of the East African coun­try’s most po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive re­gions, Oro­mia, which has seen months of some­times deadly demon­stra­tions de­mand­ing wider free­doms.

An es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion peo­ple were at­tend­ing the an­nual Ir­recha thanks­giv­ing fes­ti­val in the town of Bishoftu, south­east of the cap­i­tal, Ad­dis Ababa, when peo­ple be­gan chant­ing slo­gans against the govern­ment, ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses. The chant­ing crowds pressed to­ward a stage where re­li­gious lead­ers were speak­ing, the wit­nesses said, and some threw rocks and plas­tic bot­tles.

Po­lice re­sponded with tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets, and peo­ple tried to flee. Some were crushed in nearby ditches, wit­nesses said.

In its state­ment, the Oro­mia re­gional govern­ment blamed “evil acts mas­ter­minded by forces who are ir­re­spon­si­ble,” and it de­nied that the deaths were caused by any ac­tions by se­cu­rity forces.

Mu­latu Ge­mechu of the op­po­si­tion Oromo Fed­er­al­ist Congress told The As­so­ci­ated Press that his sources at hos­pi­tals said at least 52 peo­ple were dead as of Sun­day evening, but he thought the fig­ure would rise.

The pro­test­ers were peace­ful and did not carry any­thing to harm po­lice, he said.

Be­fore the stam­pede, an AP re­porter saw small groups of peo­ple walk­ing in the crowd and hold­ing up their crossed wrists in a pop­u­lar ges­ture of protest.

The re­porter also saw po­lice fir­ing tear gas and, later, sev­eral in­jured peo­ple.

The crossed-wrists ges­ture has been used widely as a sign of peace­ful re­sis­tance and is meant to sym­bol­ize being hand­cuffed by se­cu­rity forces.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple march dur­ing an an­nual re­li­gious fes­ti­val in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, on Sun­day.

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