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Stampede at Ethiopia thanksgiving festival kills at least 52

ANNUAL EVENT: The Irreecha festival is a cultural Thanksgiving event observed by the Oromo people

Ethiopia has begun three days of mourning after at least 52 people were killed during a protest at a religious festival in the Oromia region.

Festival-goers died in a stampede in Ethiopia on Sunday (Oct 2) 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.

PROTESTS: Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during Irreecha

The teargas caused panic and at least 50 people fell on top of each other into a deep ditch. Images from the scene showed dozens of men trying to climb out of a trench that appeared to be at least 6 metres (20ft) deep.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said rioters had caused "pre-planned mayhem" that led people to fall to their deaths in ravines.

He denied reports that the security forces had opened fire.

Witnesses said they saw people dragging out a dozen or more victims showing no obvious sign of life. Half a dozen people were seen being taken by pickup truck to a hospital, one witness said.

“As a result of the chaos, lives were lost and several of the injured were taken to hospital,” the government’s communications office said in a statement. “Those responsible will face justice.”

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