Ethiopia mourns more than 50 killed in festival stampede

Bishoftu (Ethiopia) (AFP) - Ethiopia was in mourning Monday after more than 50 people died in a stampede triggered when police clashed with protesters, the latest bloody episode in a wave of anger against the authoritarian government.

Authorities have said 52 people were killed in the crush at a religious festival Sunday in the town of Bishoftu, east of Addis Ababa. But a local hospital counted 58 bodies and the opposition believes the death toll could be far higher.

The resort town in the Oromia region, popular among tourists for several volcanic lakes, is reeling after the stampede which has been blamed on police who fired tear gas at a crowd of tens of thousands of anti-government protesters.

Shoes and items of clothing littered the scene of the disaster, and a small group of angry residents were digging for bodies in a deep ditch that claimed many fleeing festival-goers.

"We're digging because people are buried inside the ditch. Fifty-two dead is a lie," said one of the diggers, Dagafa Dame.

Members of the group said they had dug up three corpses on Monday, however it was not clear whether these had been factored into the official death toll.

- Disputed death toll -

Members of the country's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, had gathered at a sacred lake in Bishoftu for a religious festival of thanksgiving called Irreecha to mark the end of the rainy season.

However political grievances took over, with Oromo protesters chanting anti-government slogans and crossing their wrists above their heads, a gesture that has become a symbol of protest against a government considered among the most repressive in Africa.

A video on social media networks showed one protester clambering onto the stage, grabbing the microphone and shouting "down, down" with the ruling Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF)

Chaos erupted after police charged the protesters and fired tear gas, sending panic through the heaving crowd.

Fedesa Mengesha, a doctor in the town's main hospital, told AFP that his colleagues had registered 58 dead, many bleeding from the mouth and nose.

"I don't know if other bodies were taken somewhere else, or taken by their families," he said, adding that despite reports that security forces had fired live bullets at the crowd, there was no evidence of this.

The regional government said in a statement that 52 people had died in the ensuing stampede.

Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, told AFP he believed there had been many more fatalities than the number officially announced.

"What I hear from people on the ground is that the number of dead is more than 100," said Gudina.

- 'Things will get worse' -

Three days of national mourning were declared on Monday, with the national flag being flown at half-mast in government institutions and regular radio programmes replaced with music.

"If the government hadn't provoked this they would not have to declare three days of mourning. They are responsible. People are angry. Things will get worse," said Baadhada Lami, sitting in a local cafe.

The regional government blamed "irresponsible forces" for the disaster.

Demonstrations against Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's administration began in November 2015 over a government plan to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into the Oromia region.

That project was binned, however a brutal crackdown on the protests kindled simmering anger against iron-fisted leaders who largely hail from the northern Tigray region and represent less than 10 percent of the population.

"For the last 25 years the Oromo people have been marginalised in many things. Today we come together as one to chant for our freedom," said one of the people at the festival, Habte Bulcha.

The protests in Oromia later spread to the northern Amhara region, and international rights groups estimate at least 500 demonstrators have been killed and hundreds injured over the past 10 months.

Together, Oromos and Amharas make up 60 percent of the population of Ethiopia.

In 1991 the TPLF (Tigrayan People's Liberation Front), then a rebel group, overthrew dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Now as a political party it stands accused of monopolising power and keeping a stranglehold over the media.

The West has largely avoided direct criticism of the country's rights record because Ethiopia is credited with beating back Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shabaab militants in Somalia.

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