Stampede at Ethiopian Thanksgiving Festival Leaves Scores Dead After Clash Between Police and Protesters

Kwao Saa

About a hundred people died in a stampede in Ethiopia on Sunday after police clashed with anti-government protesters during the Irreecha festival.

The Irreecha festival is a cultural Thanksgiving event observed by the Oromo people, who are Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. The Oromo have been involved in bloody protests against the government since November 2015.

The festival is held at Lake Hora, located in Bishoftu, about 25 miles from the country's capital Addis Ababa. This year about two million people are estimated to have attended the Irreecha festival, AP reported.

The celebration turned bloody after Ethiopian police officers shot rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd to scatter protesters shouting anti-government slogans. Protesters allegedly threw plastic bottles and stones on stage as local religious leaders attempted to address the crowd.

Scores of people died trying to flee the ensuing chaos, and many were crushed, while others fell into Lake Hora. The number of casualties is uncertain. However, about 50 non-gunshot related deaths have so far been registered, Bloomberg reported.

"Around 100 people died, and some people are saying there are also a lot of people buried under water," Dr. Fedesa Mengesha, who is in Bishoftu, said. "We are expecting more."

Ethiopian security forces scattered the crowds with armored vehicles and pick-up trucks.

Jawar Mohamed, an Ethiopian activist and journalist, claims the government troops opened fire on protesters via a helicopter, BBC News reported. According to Mohamed, this led people to fall off a cliff and into Lake Hora, which is considered sacred.

The reports of Ethiopian troops shooting at protesters from a helicopter have not been confirmed. However, there are several social media videos of a helicopter flying around during the festival.

The Ethiopian government has acknowledged the stampede and the resulting deaths without confirming the number of causalities. The official statement, which blamed the disaster on "troublemakers," also warned that the culprits would be brought to justice.

The protests began peacefully in the Oromia region late last year over a controversial government plan to expand Addis Ababa into the Oromia region. The protests escalated in July this year when members of the Amhara region, Ethiopia's second largest ethnic group, joined the demonstrations. Both groups have complained of being marginalized by the government.

The Amhara and Oromo protests have led to many fatalities following several clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Human Rights Watch puts the number of causalities at about 600 people.

The international community has raised concerns over reports of Ethiopian forces using excessive force against protesters. The United Nations and the United States have condemned the reports and called for an independent team to investigate the claims.

"Ethiopia is a sovereign country, and Ethiopia has the capability to investigate its own case," Ethiopia's Ambassador to the US, Girma Birru, told Foreign Policy. "When the Ethiopian government is assumed to have failed to do these things, it's an insult."

"There is no need for somebody from outside to come and investigate this issue," Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn explained. "It's not because there is something to be hidden, but it's because we have sovereignty that needs to be kept."

Ethiopian officials claim the protests, which began peacefully, have since been usurped by foreign-based secessionist groups. Ethiopian dissident groups based in neighboring Eritrea and in the United States have been blamed for instigating the protests.

[Featured Image by AP Images]