BISHOFTU, Ethiopia — Dozens of people were crushed to death Sunday in a stampede after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse an anti-government protest that grew out of a massive religious festival, witnesses said. The Oromia regional government confirmed the death toll at 52.
"I almost died in that place today," said one shaken protester who gave his name only as Elias. Mud-covered and shoeless, he said he had been dragged out of a deep ditch that many people fell into as they tried to flee.
The first to fall in had suffocated, he said. "Many people have managed to get out alive, but I'm sure many more others were down there," he said. "It is really shocking."
The stampede occurred in one of the East African country's most politically sensitive regions, Oromia, which has seen months of sometimes deadly demonstrations demanding wider freedoms.
An estimated two million people were attending the annual Irrecha thanksgiving event in Bishoftu town southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.
The chanting crowds pressed toward a stage where religious leaders were speaking, the witnesses said, and some threw rocks and plastic bottles.
Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and people tried to flee. Some were crushed in nearby ditches, witnesses said.
Ethiopia's government acknowledged deaths during Sunday's event. Through a spokesman, it blamed "people that prepared to cause trouble." The spokesman's office said many people were taken to hospitals.
Mulatu Gemechu with the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress told the AP that his sources at hospitals said at least 52 people were dead as of Sunday evening, and he thought the figure would rise.
The protesters were peaceful and carry anything to harm police, Gemechu said.
Before the stampede, an Associated Press reporter saw small groups of people walking among the massive crowd and holding up crossed wrists in a popular gesture of anti-government protest. The reporter also saw police firing tear gas and, later, several injured people.
The crossed-wrists gesture has been widely used as a sign of peaceful resistance and is meant to symbolize being handcuffed by security forces. The gesture was in the spotlight at the Rio Olympics, when Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa, who is from the Oromia region, crossed his wrists while finishing in second place. He has not returned to the country since, saying his life could be in danger.
Ethiopia's government, a close security ally of the West, is often accused of silencing dissent, at times blocking internet access nationwide.
The months of anti-government protests in several parts of Ethiopia and the sometimes harsh government response have raised international concern. The United States recently spoke out against what it called the excessive use of force against protesters, describing the situation in the country as "extremely serious."