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Burundi Police Release French, British Journalists


French journalist for Le Monde newspaper, Jean Philippe Remy (2nd R) and British freelance photographer Phil Moore (R), speak with the French Ambassador to Burundi Gerrit van Rossum (L) and Fleury Nyomana, Deputy Head of Office in Bujumbura British Embassy (2nd L) in the hall outside the prosecutor's office in Bujumbura, Jan. 29, 2016.

Authorities in Burundi have released two foreign journalists a day after they were arrested in the capital.

VOA's Central Africa service reports that British photographer Phil Moore and the Africa chief for the French daily Le Monde, Jean-Philippe Remy, were released Friday.

It says none of the two men's equipment was returned after they refused to disclose the passwords to their smartphones. Their media accreditations have also been revoked.

Burundi’s security minister said the two men were arrested Thursday in Bujumbura in the company of armed criminals. Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said they were among 17 people arrested by police.

Le Monde says Moore and Remy were arrested while meeting with government opponents. It says both men were working for the paper and were doing their job by meeting with all parties involved in Burundi's political crisis.

U.S. 'deeply concerned'

The U.S. said the arrests raise concerns about human rights and transparency in the African nation.

"We're also deeply concerned by today's reports of arrest of independent journalists," said State Department Spokesperson John Kirby. "While the journalists have now, apparently, been released without charge, we understand that Burundian authorities have stripped their credentials and continue to retain their equipment.

"The government continues to restrict media freedoms in Burundi," Kirby said. "These restrictions, coupled with the government's refusal to allow independent human rights investigations, raise deep concerns about the government of Burundi's commitment to transparency and accountability for human rights violations and abuses."

Julia Steers, a Nairobi-based freelance reporter working in Burundi, visited the two journalists Friday morning at Burundi’s intelligence service headquarters where they were being held. She said the French ambassador and a representative from the British consulate also visited the pair.

Steers said the two men were arrested Thursday in the capital's Nyakabiga neighborhood, and they were held and questioned overnight.

"We were able to speak with them briefly, and to bring them some food and some water, and they said that they were treated fairly, that they were questioned extensively, but no evidence of mistreatment or torture."

Charges unclear

Steers said the charges remained somewhat unclear.

“This morning, the police spokesman here said that Phil was arrested in the company of armed men, which is something that Phil denied when we were able to speak with him," she said. "He said that he was just walking alone in this neighborhood around 4:30 yesterday afternoon and was approached by a police officer and arrested shortly thereafter. Then his colleague Jean-Philippe was arrested after that, so we’re still not clear exactly what the charges are.”

Ilya Gridneff, chairman of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa, had urged the Burundian authorities to release the journalists.

“Both of them are consummate professionals, excellent journalists that have won awards, and have worked in tougher parts of the world, and essentially we’ve been pursuing all channels for their timely release,” Gridneff said.

Burundi's political crisis began last April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza said he was running for a controversial third term. Human rights groups have denounced the government for cracking down on journalists and protesters in a bid to suppress political dissent.

The African Union is considering a plan to send 5,000 peacekeepers to the country to contain violence that has killed more than 400 people. Burundi's government says it will fight any foreign troops who attempt to deploy in the Central African country.