Leftist rebels free reporter, two hikers

BOGOTA, Colombia -- An American writer and two hikers emerged smiling from the Colombian jungle Friday after nearly a week in the custody of right-wing paramilitaries, while leftist rebels kept captive two foreign journalists working for the Los Angeles Times.

Robert Young Pelton, a freelance writer and TV reporter, said he and his companions, Megan Smaker and Mark Wedeven, were not mistreated.

In a separate case, journalists and officials appealed to the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, to release photographer Scott Dalton, 34, of Conroe, Texas; and reporter Ruth Morris, 35, a British citizen who was raised in the Los Angeles area.

Leftist rebels -- the avowed enemies of the paramilitaries -- kidnapped the freelance journalists on Tuesday in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border.

"This is very serious," said Vice President Francisco Santos, a former journalist and himself once a hostage of drug traffickers. "We hope that the ELN will free them as soon as possible."

Released Thursday night

Pelton of Redondo Beach, Calif., Smaker of Brentwood, Calif., and Wedeven of Bremerton, Wash., were turned over to church officials in northern Colombia Thursday night after they emerged from the jungle-covered Darien Gap, which spans both countries.

They arrived by boat in the town of Carepa, in northern Colombia, on Friday and were expected to travel to Bogota, the capital, next.

The paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, encountered the trio in a jungle-covered region along the Panamanian border on Sunday and removed them from the area when fighting broke out.

Pelton said he was not angry about being taken out of the war zone, although the paramilitary forces held them for a few days afterward.

"Even though we were not happy about being kidnapped or being kept away from our families and our jobs, they had a reason to do so," Pelton, author of a guidebook called "The World's Most Dangerous Places," told CNN.

"After all, it is their country and their war."

Wedeven said he never felt that he and his fellow travelers were abducted.

"We were not kidnapped," Wedeven said. "During the time we were with the AUC we did not have any problems."

The State Department said Friday that the United States was trying to secure the release of the two journalists who were taken captive in Arauca state, one of Colombia's most violent regions.

"We are greatly concerned about their welfare," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "Our embassy officials in Bogota are working with the government of Colombia to ensure their safe return to the United States."

He said the State Department also had contacted the families of the two journalists.

Boucher said Colombia's government must stop the terrorism that comes from the various groups involved in the civil war.

The ELN and a larger rebel group are fighting right-wing paramilitaries and the government for control of Arauca's oil-rich plains.

The United States, which has given Colombia almost $2 billion in mostly military aid, recently deployed approximately 70 Green Berets to Arauca to train Colombian troops. Washington has rejected any direct combat role for the U.S. troops, but the rebels see their presence as an act of aggression.

Dozens of foreign and local journalists holding photos of Morris and Dalton gathered in Bogota's central plaza Friday to demand their release.

The International Press Alliance, an informal organization of foreign media in Bogota, issued a statement late Thursday also calling for their release.

Both Dalton and Morris are veteran journalists.

Dalton worked for The Associated Press for about nine years in Panama, Guatemala and Colombia. Last year, he left the AP to pursue video projects while freelancing for major newspapers.

Morris has previously written as a freelancer for the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and other publications.