Police fired teargas and warning shots at anti-government protesters during a religious festival, triggering a stampede that killed ‘at least 50 people’.

Thousands of people had gathered for an annual celebration of thanksgiving in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region when some began chanting and waving a rebel flag.

When police fired teargas and guns into the air, crowds fled and created a stampede, with some people plunging into a deep ditch.

Witnesses said they saw people dragging out a dozen or more victims, showing no obvious sign of life.

Half a dozen people, also motionless, were also seen being taken by pick-up truck to a hospital, one witness said.

The government said ‘lives were lost’ and ‘several were injured’ but did not give a precise death toll.

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The figure of 50 deaths came from the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress.

Crowds chanted ‘we need freedom’ and ‘we need justice’, preventing community elders, deemed close to the government, from delivering their speeches.

Some protesters waved the red, green and yellow flag of the Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group branded a ‘terrorist’ organisation by the government.

The crush took place during the Irreecha festival of thanksgiving in the town of Bishoftu, about 25 miles south of the capital Addis Ababa.

Sporadic protests have erupted in Oromiya in the last two years, initially sparked by a land row but increasingly turning more broadly against the government.

Since late 2015, scores of protesters have been killed in clashes with police.

These developments highlight tensions in the country where the government has delivered stellar economic growth rates but faced criticism from opponents and rights group that it has trampled on political freedoms.

A government spokesman said: ‘As a result of the chaos, lives were lost and several of the injured were taken to hospital. Those responsible will face justice.’

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Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congresso, said the government tried to use the event to show Oromiya was calm, but ‘people still protested’.

The government blames rebel groups and dissidents abroad for stirring up the protests and provoking violence.

It dismisses charges that it clamps down on free speech or its opponents.

Protesters had chanted slogans against Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, one of the four regional parties that make up the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has ruled the country for quarter of a century.

In a 2015 parliamentary election, opposition parties failed to win a single seat – down from just one in the previous parliament.

Opponents accused the government of rigging the vote, a charge government officials dismissed.

Protests in Oromiya province initially flared in 2014 over a development plan for the capital that would have expanded its boundaries, a move seen as threatening farmland.

Scores have been killed since late in 2015 and this year as protests gathered pace, although the government shelved the boundary plan earlier this year.

 

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