Hundreds of festival goers have reportedly been killed on Sunday in the town of Bishoftu, the site of the annual Ireecha celebrations, an important religious festival by the people of Oromo in welcoming spring. Fana broadcasting, one of the organs of the ruling party reported that 52 people died in a stampede.
An eyewitness who spoke to ESAT on the phone said a stampede ensued when soldiers opened fire at peaceful protesters and used tear gas at festival goers. The festival goers were also using the occasion to express grievances against the government and the killing of hundreds of their compatriots in the nearly one year of protests by the people of Oromo against the tyrannical regime. The eyewitness said 25 bodies were found in a ravine in one place alone.
Activists say soldiers also fired live bullets from helicopters as well as from the ground. With the Internet and telephone lines cut in and around Bishoftu, a.k.a. Debre Zeit, since the eve of the festival, it is hard to know the exact number of the fatalities and injuries. But social media postings by Oromo activists show gruesome pictures and video of dead bodies.
The witness who spoke to ESAT said the protest was peaceful. The people began booing at government officials as they tried to make a speech, at which point the soldiers started violent crackdowns trigering the deadly stampede, he said.
Gunfire could be heard in Bishoftu all day, 25 miles from the capital Addis Ababa, as helicopters were hovering over the town since the eve of the festival on Saturday. Some estimates put the number of festival goers at three million.
Meanwhile, residents of Ambo, west of Addis Ababa and Aweday, a commercial town in eastern Ethiopia have held demonstrations on Sunday in protest against the killing of their compatriots in Bishoftu. Cars were burnt and government buildings attacked in Ambo.
Sunday’s mass killings perhaps mark the deadliest since the protests began in November 2015 against economic and political marginalization imposed by a minority government over majority Oromos.
Rights groups report that over one thousand protesters were killed and tens of thousands remain in detention.