Le Monde journalists arrested
French national Jean-Philippe Rémy (left) and British photographer Philip Edward Moore are still detained at Burundi's intelligence services Twitter/Le Monde

Two journalists at France's most famous newspaper, Le Monde, have been arrested in Burundi as rights group Amnesty says it had found five potential mass graves near the capital, Bujumbura, where security forces were accused of killing hundreds of people in December last year.

These arrests come in the context of grave government repression against journalists, with all the main Burundian private radio stations suspended since April and May 2015.

Between 800 and 900 people are reported to have been killed in Burundi since April 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced a controversial decision to run for a third term, which he won in contested elections in July. Scores of bodies are reportedly still being found in the streets or in ditches, and dozens of civilians have simply disappeared, in tit-for-tat violence pitting pro-Nkurunziza forces against insurgents – leading analysts to warn of an impending civil war.

French national and Africa bureau chief for the French daily, Jean-Philippe Rémy, 49 and British photojournalist Philip Edward Moore, 34 were arrested on Thursday (28 January 2016) afternoon in Bujumbura by security forces of the BAE (Anti Riot Squad) as the two journalists were meeting opponents to the regime. Presidency adviser Willy Nyamitwe publicly confirmed their arrest.

Local sources told IBTimes UK that the men had spent the night at the 'Documentation' – the regime's intelligence service, where they were reportedly still detained on Friday (29 January). "They are sleeping at the Documentation for the moment," a source close to the matter told IBTimes from Bujumbura. "Logically, they will rapidly be released, but they may stay there for the weekend."

Meeting armed men

Le Monde has called for the immediate release of its reporters, who were in possession of the required visas "and were just doing their job by meeting with all parties concerned by the current tensions in Burundi", a newspaper spokesperson said.

Members of the BAE were conducting a search of several households in the area, when they were allegedly confronted by a group of armed men, police spokesman Moïse Nkurunziza said. This group was "accompanied" by two reporters, Nkurunziza added. One of the journalists attempted to escape but was subsequently caught up at the intersection of the Avenue de l'Universite and the main road heading to Nyakabiga.

"The photographer tried to run away when he saw the police," Nkurunziza said. "Why flee from police when he was accredited to work on the Burundian territory? In addition, there were armed men with him and four of them were arrested in possession of weapons."

Local sources, meanwhile, claimed the BAE officers insulted and bullied the journalists who were taking pictures. Their cameras were quickly confiscated, according to a witness. Police have said they has arrested 17 people. The Foreign Correspondents' Association of East Africa said it was "extremely concerned" by the journalists' arrests.

Update 29/01/15 10:40am (GMT):

Human Rights Watch has called for the government to immediately release the journalists "unless there is a credible legal basis for detaining them", Carina Tertsakian, senior Researcher Africa division said on Friday.

"They should ensure that they are not ill-treated in detention and that diplomatic representatives and lawyers can visit them without delay."

Tertsakian also urged the Burundian government to allow foreign and Burundian journalists to investigate and report without intimidation or hindrance.

"That includes allowing them to investigate events in areas of Bujumbura affected by the current violence and to speak to a wide range of sources, including people sympathetic to the government, the opposition and others".

Radio France Internationale (RFI), meanwhile, reported that the French Ambassador, Gerrit van Rossum, had visited and met the journalists in detention. Quoting sources close to the matter, RFI said the journalists should soon be heard by the prosecutor.

In Bujumbura, another journalist - a Burundian national - working for the Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) was arrested on Friday morning, according to a local journalist. Hermes Ntibandetse was allegedly taken away in a car. IBTimes UK, however, could not confirm the details of his arrest at the time of writing.