Deaths of at least 52 people blamed on police action against protesters during Oromia religious festival in Bishoftu town.

(Al Jazeera)―Dozens of people have been reportedly crushed to death in Ethiopia in a stampede after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse an anti-government protest that grew out of a religious festival.

There were conflicting death toll reports following Sunday’s stampede in Bishoftu, a town 40km southeast of the capital Addis Ababa.

The Oromia regional government, however, confirmed the death of at least 52 people.

An Associated Press news agency report said “several dozens” have died.

“As a result of the chaos, lives were lost and several of the injured were taken to hospital,” the government communications office said in a statement, without giving exact figures.

“Those responsible will face justice.”

An estimated two million people were attending the annual Irreecha event in Bishoftu.

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.

Merera Gudina, chairperson of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), told Reuters news agency that the deaths occurred when people fled after police fired tear gas and shots in the air to disperse anti-government protesters at the religious festival.

Crowds chanted “we need freedom” and “we need justice” and prevented community elders, deemed close to the government, from delivering their speeches at a religious festival, prompting police to fire tear gas that caused the stampede.

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

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