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WASHINGTON -- A Voice of America correspondent and his translator were arrested Friday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa while covering an anti-government protest, the US government-funded broadcaster said.
VOA said on its website that Peter Heinlein and interpreter Simegineh Yekoye were held when trying to interview protesters from the Muslim minority who have been demonstrating against alleged government interference in their affairs.
In a formal statement, VOA said it is "working to gather more information" about his status.
"The safety and welfare of our reporters is our utmost concern," it said.
"We have been in contact with State Department officials and will release details as soon as they are available," VOA said.
"We urge Ethiopian authorities to allow Mr. Heinlein to carry out his journalistic responsibilities without interference," it added.
A State Department official said on condition of anonymity that "we've communicated our interest to the Ethiopian authorities," the official said, but declining to give more information for privacy reasons.
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said Heinlein and his colleague were taken to Maekelawi, the federal investigation center in Addis Ababa, which is where she said "high-profile" or political detainees are often held.
She cited media and other sources.
Lefkow said such detentions are part of a crackdown on the media that Human Rights Watch has witnessed over the years where independent journalists have been driven from the country or jailed on terrorism charges.
Foreign journalists have also been held in the past and deported.
Two Swedish journalists were jailed recently, however, for 11 years under anti-terrorism laws for trying to enter the country's conflict-torn east.
The Committee to Protect Journalists quoted an Ethiopian government spokesman as saying that Heinlein was detained because he was "allegedly using a diplomatic car and refused to show his press identification."
"Peter Heinlein is a veteran reporter with many years' experience in the profession," said CPJ East Africa consultant Tom Rhodes. "We call for the immediate release of Heinlein and Simegineh Yekoye."
"Heinlein has been based in Addis for some years now, and it's very hard to imagine him behaving unethically or unprofessionally," said HRW's Lefkow.
"The obvious conclusion is that the government is simply trying to crack down on coverage of these protests.
"The government should immediately release both Peter and his translator and stop trying to clamp down on the reporting on these protests," Lefkow added.
Despite the fact that Ethiopia and the United States are allies, she said, VOA and the Ethiopian government have had a tense relationship, with Addis Ababa jamming its broadcasts and detaining VOA's Ethiopian journalists.
"This is the conundrum of Ethiopia when you look at the US government position," said Lefkow.
In a speech in Accra in 2009, US President Barack Obama said "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions," but he invited Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to the G8 summit earlier this month.