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Journalists believed kidnapped in Panama

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Three foreign journalists, including the reporter who interviewed U.S. Taliban suspect John Walker Lindh, were believed kidnapped Tuesday by Colombian attackers, police said.

The three, said to be part of a camera crew, disappeared Sunday near Paya, a remote Indian village of 500 people just north of the Colombian border.

Tuesday night, police searchers found the bodies of three people who police said had been killed in the attack. But it was unclear whether those killed were the missing journalists because authorities were also looking for three Indians from Paya believed to have been killed during the attack.

Panama's National Police said the three were missing and believed kidnapped. They were identified as as Mark Wedeven, Megan A. Smaker and Robert Y. Pelton.

Pelton is an American who lives in the Los Angeles area. The two others are believed to be an American and a Canadian. Their hometowns and media affiliations were not made public.

Panamanian authorities called Pelton "a war correspondent with great experience."

Reached by telephone at their home, Pelton's wife, Linda, said her husband is a freelance journalist and the author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places," a guide book that warns travelers of the dangers around the globe.

Pelton covered the war in Afghanistan last year for CNN and made headlines around the world with his interview of Lindh.

Pelton's wife said she had not been contacted by any one claiming responsibility for Pelton's kidnapping.

"I'm waiting for the next step," she said. "I'm waiting for them to be home safe."

Panamanian National Police spokesman Carlos Bares said authorities were scouring the area near Paya, but that they were not sure where the abducted journalists had been taken.

"They could be in Colombia," Bares said.

A Panamanian who served as the trio's guide, Victor Manuel Alcazar, was wounded in the attack and escaped from the paramilitaries. He was interviewed by the newspaper La Prensa in the equally remote Panamanian border town of Boca de Cupe.

Alcazar told the paper the foreigners had hired him to guide them through the jungle in Darien province, on the border. Their group had passed by Paya when they ran into a column of 50 to 60 paramilitary fighters.

Local media reports said the group was intercepted by members of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, but Alcazar wouldn't confirm that report.

Alcazar said one group took the foreigners prisoner, while another group split off and asked Alcazar to show them the way back to Paya. Alacaz said the paramilitaries took him with them as they attacked Pucuro, about 12 miles from Paya, but that he later escaped.

Military sources speculated the paramilitaries wanted to attack the Indian village for its alleged cooperation with leftist Colombian guerrillas.

Authorities reported the area's only phone was out of service and attempts to contact Alcazar were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Police also said three Panamanian Indians were kidnapped from Paya during the attack and may have been killed. That report could not be confirmed however.

Authorities searching near Paya found another hamlet which had been attacked, and recovered the body of one man killed there.

Panama rushed squads of police to the Paya region following Sunday's attack. There is no permanent police post in Paya, nor is there a highway linking it to the rest of the country.

The border area has been the site of frequent incursions by Colombian paramilitaries and left-wing Colombian guerrillas in recent years.


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