BISHOFTU, Ethiopia – Several dozen people died in a stampede Sunday morning when a religious celebration in Ethiopia turned into an anti-government protest that led police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets.

An estimated two million people were attending the annual Irrecha event in Bishoftu town southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa. The event took place in one of the country’s most sensitive regions, Oromia, which has seen several months of sometimes deadly protests demanding wider freedoms.

Ethiopia’s government acknowledged deaths during the event and, though a spokesman, blamed “people that prepared to cause trouble” for the chaos. The spokesman’s office said many people were taken to hospitals, but it did not provide any figures.

Witnesses said police dispersed protesters chanting anti-government slogans as they pushed toward a stage where religious leaders were speaking. Some threw rocks and plastic bottles.

As festival goers fled, some were crushed in nearby ditches.

An Associated Press reporter saw people holding up crossed wrists in a popular gesture of anti-government protest and police firing tear gas. The reporter also saw several injured people.


Demonstrators show the Oromo protest gesture sign during Irreecha, the thanks giving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 2, 2016.

REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The months of anti-government protests in several parts of Ethiopia and the sometimes harsh government response has raised international concern. The United States recently spoke out against what it called the excessive use of force against protesters.

The Ethiopian government has long been accused of human rights abuses when it comes to government opponents. Three Ethiopian journalists were released from prison just ahead of President Obama’s visit to the African nation last year. They are just some of victims who dared to criticize their government and went to prison for it.

Human Rights Watch writes: “Authorities use arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions to silence journalists, bloggers, protesters, and perceived supporters of opposition parties. Security forces respond to peaceful protests with excessive force, and detainees routinely allege torture and ill-treatment. Repressive laws restrict nongovernmental activity.”