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Two translators working for AFP and Financial Times held in Tigray

Two people working as translators for foreign media in the Tigray region of Ethiopia — including one hired by the Financial Times — have been detained, the regional government said.

The arrests came shortly after the federal government had allowed foreign journalists to travel to Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. The region had been off-limits to most foreign media since November, when federal forces mounted what they called “a law and order operation” against the then-government run by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Federal forces ousted the TPLF, but low-level fighting has continued and reports of civilian massacres have trickled out in spite of a virtual news blackout.

Fitsum Berhane, who had been translating for the AFP news agency for three days, and Alula Akalu Kassa, who had been working for the Financial Times, were arrested by uniformed men on Saturday in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, according to relatives. Fitsum was picked up from his home and Alula, several hours later, from a restaurant where he had been eating with friends, these relatives said.

A senior figure at the interim government in Tigray, which was appointed by Addis Ababa in November, confirmed that the two men working as translators had been detained. “They are under investigation,” he said, without elaborating on their alleged crimes. 

In a statement, the FT said: “We are taking all possible steps to ensure the release of translators Alula Akalu and Fitsum Berhane, who were arrested while working for the FT and AFP respectively on a government-authorised press trip in Mekelle, Ethiopia. Our concerns have been raised with the relevant authorities as we work to understand the reasons for the arrests.”

Phil Chetwynd, AFP’s global news director, said: “We have not been informed of any specific charges against Fitsum Berhane. His collaboration with a media outlet should not be a motive for his arrest, and we call for his immediate release.”

Humanitarian organisations have been calling for better access to Tigray where, they say, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, with some facing severe hunger. Thousands of refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan.

In the toughest statement yet from the US, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, on Sunday said Washington was “gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation” in Tigray.

Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, on Monday called on Ethiopia to release the translators.

“I call on the #Ethiopian government to immediately release @BBCNews’ Mekelle Girmay Gebru, @AFP’s Fitsum Berhane, @FinancialTimes’ Alula Akalu Kassa & a local reporter, and allow access to journalists & independent monitors to investigate reports of mass violence,” he wrote on Twitter.

Additional reporting from Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

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