Ethiopia mourns stampede victims

Ethiopia | The incident marks a turning point in the restive Oromia region
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 10/04/16, 11:25 am

The Ethiopian government has declared three days of national mourning after more than 52 people died Sunday in a stampede at a large thanksgiving festival in the Oromia region. The incident, triggered by clashes between security forces and protesters, highlights the growing tension between the government and demonstrators seeking more political freedom.

The government communications office said in a statement that all Ethiopian flags in the country and at its embassies and consular offices around the world would fly at half-staff beginning today.

“The country declares mourning following the death of people who lost their lives because of the violence instigated by anti-peace elements,” the statement said.

An estimated 2 million people gathered in Oromia on Sunday for the town’s annual Irrecha thanksgiving festival. Witnesses said antigovernment protesters started chanting, “We need freedom,” and, “We need justice.” Some of the protesters threw objects on the stage where religious leaders were speaking.

Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds fired in the air. People began to flee the area, resulting in a stampede. More than 52 people died and some 100 others sustained injuries, health officials confirmed.  Merera Gudina, chairman of an opposing party, said the death toll had increased to 150 people.

One protester, identified only as Elias, said someone dragged him out of a ditch where several people fell as they tried to run.

“I almost died in that place today,” Elias said. “Many people have managed to get out alive, but I’m sure many others were down there.”

The clashes between protesters and security forces continued into Monday morning in the towns of Bishoftu and Ambo. Nimona Negash, a public transport driver, said police officials responded with violence despite the peaceful nature of the protests.

Oromia region has been the center of increasing demonstrations in the past two years. The protests initially began in 2014 over a land dispute with the government, but have since grown into a call for more political freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces have killed more than 500 people since November 2015.

The Oromia regional government in a statement denied accusations that security forces caused the deaths. Instead, it blamed “evil acts masterminded by forces who are irresponsible.”

Awol Allo, a human rights fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, countered that the government knew a stampede would occur. He said the government had enough warning of protests prior to the festival and also knew millions of people would attend.

“You know people are going to run away and lead to the kind of carnage that happened,” he said.

Allo said the government’s negative response to protests could trigger more violent incidents from protesters, who are becoming more frustrated: “If you paint a peaceful settlement as impossible, then you’ll drive people into taking the law into their own hands.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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