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. A body count at hospitals showed at least 52 dead, an opposition party member said.

“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 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 2 million people were attending the annual Irrecha thanksgiving festival in the town of Bishoftu, southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, when people began chanting slogans against the government, according to witnesses.

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 that deaths had occurred, but it did not say how many were killed and injured. Through a spokesman, it blamed “people that prepared to cause trouble.”

Many people were taken to hospitals, the spokesman’s office said.

Mulatu Gemechu with the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress said his sources at hospitals counted at least 52 people dead as of Sunday evening, and he thought the figure would rise.

The protesters were peaceful and didnt’t carry anything to harm police, Gemechu said.

Ethiopia’s government, a close security ally of the West, has been accused often of silencing dissent, at times blocking internet access.

The months of anti-government protests 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 Ethiopia as “extremely serious.”