‘Flashpoint’ Festival Looms in Ethiopia

Ethiopian authorities should exercise restraint at a festival held by the country’s largest ethnic group in October, after security forces at last year’s event triggered a fatal stampede by using teargas and discharging firearms on protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

Scores of people — possibly hundreds — died at the Irreecha festival on Oct. 2, 2016, from falling into a deep trench, being trampled or shot after the government responded to unrest with force, the New York-based advocacy group said Tuesday in a report, citing witnesses and video footage. Ethiopian authorities at the time said that at least 55 died, either crushed or drowned in ditches and shallow waters, and that no one was shot. Irreecha, a major event for the Horn of African country’s about 40 million Oromo people, is held in Bishoftu city, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.

“The security forces’ disastrous and disproportionate use of force should not be repeated this year,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With longstanding grievances still unanswered, this year’s Irreecha could be fraught with tensions. The government and the security forces should take all steps necessary before and during the festival to protect human life and de-escalate tensions.”

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Ethiopia is ranked Africa’s fastest-growing economy by the International Monetary Fund, but unrest has threatened to derail the boom. Last year’s stampede followed months of anti-government protests by the Oromo people over alleged land grabs and political neglect that presented a major challenge for the ruling coalition. A week after the events, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared a state of emergency that was finally lifted in August.

Security forces initially sought to control the crowds using teargas, then fired into the crowd using live ammunition, Human Rights Watch cited witnesses as saying. The group said that while “many gunshots” were heard, as corroborated by videos, it has photographs of rubber bullets retrieved at the scene and couldn’t prove live ammunition was used.

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Ethiopia’s Information Ministry referred requests for comment to staff member Mohammed Said, who didn’t respond to two text messages and five phone calls.

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