BISHOFTU: 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 and medical sources gave death tolls varying from 52 to 58 people killed in the crush at a religious festival Sunday in the town of Bishoftu, east of the capital Addis Ababa. But the opposition believes the figure could be far higher.
The resort town in the Oromia region, popular among tourists for its 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 shovel-bearing men, Dagafa Dame, referring to a toll from regional government authorities given late Sunday.
Members of the group told AFP they had dug up three corpses on Monday, however it was not clear how these factored into the different death tolls.
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.
Desalegn Bayisa, general manager of the Bishoftu Hospital, was quoted by the state-controlled Fana Broadcasting Corporation as saying 55 people had died, and 100 were injured, only three of whom were still in hospital.
However Fedesa Mengesha, another doctor in the 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, he had seen no evidence of this.
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.
Unprecedented protests 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.
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.