Protesters took to the streets in some parts of Ethiopia’s central region Monday, a day after at least 52 people were killed in a stampede at a holy festival in Bishoftu, according to Reuters. About two million people, mostly from the Oromo community attended the Irrecha Festival, which is an annual religious event in Ethiopia. The Thanksgiving ceremony, which celebrates the blessings and mercies received during the year, quickly turned into an anti-government rally, forcing Ethiopian security agents to intervene.
“As a result of the chaos, lives were lost and several of the injured were taken to the hospital. Those responsible will face justice,” the government’s communications department said in a statement.
Al Jazeera reports that the government has declared three days of national mourning, with flags across the country and at Ethiopian embassies and consular offices being lowered to half-mast starting Tuesday.
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Speaking to Reuters following the incident, the chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress Merera Gudina said the stampede started after police fired shots in the air to disperse a crowd of protesters who were chanting anti-government slogans at the festival.
The protesters chanted “We need justice” and “We want freedom” and even shouted down community elders believed to be in support of the Ethiopian government, preventing them from delivering their speeches.
They also chanted slogans against the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, one of the four regional parties that form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, reports Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Communications Minister Getachew Reda told CNN that “troublemakers” physically attacked elders who were making their way to the stage to say their blessings for the new year, causing police to shoot warning shots, which triggered the stampede.
Bishoftu is one of the main regions at the center of anti-government protests since November last year. Residents are accusing the Ethiopian government of economic and political segregation.
Many of the protests have ended in chaos, with human rights organizations accusing the police of using lethal force against protesters.
The Oromo and Amhara communities, which make up the two largest tribes in Ethiopia, say the government is isolating them in favor of the Tigray ethnic group, which only accounts for 6 percent of the country’s population.
The two communities have also been protesting the government’s plan to expand the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, to neighboring regions which are largely occupied by the Oromo people.
They argue that the government plans to use the expansion to seize their farmlands.