Violent unrest continues in Ethiopia a day after several dozen people were crushed to death when police fired teargas and warning shots to disperse anti-government protesters at the annual Irreecha festival of thanksgiving.
The tear gas caused panic and triggered a stampede that killed, according to activists, more than 300 people.
One witness said bodies are still being pulled from ditches where people fell while trying to flee in the stampede from tear gas and rubber bullets and shooting live rounds into the air after protesters approached the stage where religious leaders were speaking.
Without giving a specific death toll, the government confirmed several people died and others were injured in chaotic scenes at the massive religious festival.
Clashes between security forces and protesters erupted on Sunday evening and continued through Monday morning in the towns of Bishoftu and Ambo in the restive Oromia region, an Ethiopian government official and witnesses said.
“Some people tried to come out en masse this morning to protest the deaths of holiday-goers on Sunday and also demand the release of people arrested during the celebrations,” said Nimona Negash, a tuk-tuk driver in Bishoftu, 40 kilometers south of Addis Ababa where Sunday’s disaster occurred.
“Today’s protesters were peaceful but dispersed by police violently. I’m not aware of any deaths this morning, but it was violent. But I’m aware of live bullets used this morning in other vicinities of this town.”
He said family members of people who died in Sunday’s stampede and others looking for their loved ones were flocking to Bishoftu, creating tension there. He said he heard some 200 people had been arrested.
“I went to the place where the accident happened this morning, and I’ve seen people being pulled out,” Mr Negash said. “More and more people are coming out of a deep ditch. I saw seven bodies being pulled out then left the scene as I was unable to watch more.”
The Oromia region has been experiencing violent and sometimes deadly anti-government protests since November 2015 as people call for wider political freedoms and the release of detained opposition figures and journalists.
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch group at least 500 people have been killed by security forces since protests began in November. Though demonstrations started among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, they later spread to the Amhara, the second most populous group.
Both groups say that a ruling coalition is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group, which makes up about 6 percent of the population.
Ethiopia’s government, a close security ally of the West, has been accused of silencing dissent, at times blocking internet access. The US recently spoke out against what it called the excessive use of force against protesters, calling the country’s situation “extremely serious”.
The head of the Oromia region’s spokesman’s office, Fikadu Tessema, said on Monday that some groups were trying to “continue the violence that they orchestrated on Sunday”.
He said they were trying to portray the stampede as caused by live bullets fired by government forces.
“I can assure you 100% that all the 52 victims died of a stampede and didn’t have bullet wounds on their bodies,” he said. “The current situation in Oromia is not out of control. We are taking measures to bring back our peace.”
* Al Jazeera, AP and VOA have contributed to the story.