By Aaron Maasho
Police in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region fired teargas and warning shots on Sunday to disperse anti-government protesters at a religious festival, triggering a stampede that caused several casualties, witnesses said.
Sporadic protests have erupted in Oromiya in the last two years, initially sparked by a land row and increasingly turning more broadly against the government. Since late 2015, scores of protesters have been killed in clashes with police.
Thousands of people gathered for the annual Irreecha festival of thanksgiving in the town of Bishoftu, about 40 km (25 miles) south of the capital Addis Ababa.
Crowds chanted “we need freedom” and “we need justice”, preventing community elders, deemed close to the government, from delivering their speeches at the festival.
Some protesters waved the red, green and yellow flag of the Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group branded a “terrorist” organisation by the government, witnesses said.
When police fired teargas and guns into the air, crowds fled and created a stampede, some of them falling into a deep ditch nearby in the rush of people. Witnesses said they saw several casualties.
It was not immediately clear if they were dead.
Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The protesters had chanted slogans against Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, one of the four regional parties that make up the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has ruled the nation for quarter of a century.
In a 2015 parliamentary election, opposition parties failed to win a single seat – down from just one in the previous parliament. Opponents accuse the government of suppressing opposition voices, a charge it routinely dismisses.
Small protests in Oromiya province initially flared in 2014 over a development plan for the capital that would have expanded its boundaries, a move seen as threatening the seizure of farmland.
Scores have been killed since late in 2015 and this year as protests gathered pace, although the government shelved the boundary plan earlier this year.
The government has blamed rebel groups and dissidents abroad for stirring up the protests and provoking violence.