Kidnapped writer is freed after an adventure too far

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 24 January 2003 01:00
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Far-right forces released the American travel writer Robert Young Pelton and two US citizens , after "detaining" them last weekend near the jungle border with Panama, a paramilitary source said last night.

Pelton and Mark Wedeven and Megan Smaker, both 22, were reported to be in good health as they were handed over to a Catholic priest in the remote village of Unguia, some 280 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota.

The release came as leftist Colombian rebels said that they had kidnapped the British reporter Ruth Morris and the US photographer Scott Dobson. The guerrilla fighters warned that the release of the two reporters would depend on undefined "political and military conditions." The National Liberation Army, or ELN, said in a statement on a rebel radio station that they had "retained" the pair, who disappeared on an assignment in eastern Colombia.

Pelton has made his living travelling to the world's most dangerous places and providing advice on how to stay safe for those who would wish to follow in his footsteps. In a series of bestselling books, including The World's Most Dangerous Places, the adventurer from Los Angeles has given readers the inside track on how to avoid the perils of civil war, disease, drugs and kidnapping ­ especially kidnapping.

Taking hostages, he once wrote, "generates extremely good business".

The leader of the paramilitary group had reportedly said he that took Pelton for his own protection.

"So far we have heard nothing from the Panamanian authorities," said Guy Olson, a spokesman for the US embassy in Panama. "We are liaising with them but the Panamanian police are the investigating authorities."

Pelton was believed to have met Smaker and Wedeven in Panama City and agreed to share a guide to the remote and dangerous Darien Gap, a region just north of the Colombian border. The thickly forested and sparsely populated region is known as a favoured refuge for both left and right-wing armed groups. A US State Department travel notice warns that the area may be dangerous because of "the activities of drug traffickers, Colombian guerrillas and Colombian paramilitary groups".

Mr Olson said: "It's an area where for decades rebel groups from Colombia have been taking temporary refuge. They come across the border to flee Colombian authorities. They rest up a while and then they cross back over."

The Panamanian guide employed by the three travellers, Victor Manuel Alcazar, told local reporters he had warned the group they should not travel too near to the border. Instead, he said, the group opted to proceed and were apparently seized by fighters from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a right-wing group usually known as the AUC. The fighters ­ a force of up to 50 or 60 men ­ had just raided the Indian village of Paya, killing four of the villagers in an attack that military sources said had most probably been launched because of Paya's alleged co-operation with left-wing guerrillas.

Yesterday, Mireya Moscoso, Panama's President, flew to the area of jungle where the three Americans were taken. Without a standing army and with a limited number of police, she said her country was powerless to stop Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary fighters from using territory across the border to cultivate drugs. "These areas have no protection."

Pelton's wife, Linda, had said she was used to her husband getting into trouble on his frequent trips and that she was certain he would be returned safely. From their home in Redondo Beach, she told the Los Angeles Times that US diplomats in Colombia had assured her the local authorities were making progress in their negotiations with the kidnappers. No one from the embassy in Bogota was available for comment.

She said: "He's gone to some pretty intense areas; he's a really focused, smart man, and he does not do anything stupid."

She said he had been due to return home on 15 January. When she did not hear from him she was not initially worried but after a few days she felt concerned something might be wrong and contacted the US embassies in the region. On Tuesday she was told he had been kidnapped.

Pelton occupies a curious and perhaps unique place within the world of journalism. While his books are written with a gung-ho and carefree attitude, he is also recognised as a serious reporter.

During the US campaign against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, Pelton secured an exclusive interview for CNN with John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban who was sentenced to 20 years in prison last year after being captured by US forces.

Pelton's trip to Panama had been commissioned by National Geographic Adventure Magazine, for which he is a contributing editor.

The AUC emerged in 1997 in northern Colombia as an umbrella group to unite several existing paramilitary groups that in some cases had been trained and funded by the Colombian authorities to counter the growth of left-wing guerrillas.

Last September, John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General, announced indictments against the leadership of the AUC for allegedly smuggling more than 17 tons of cocaine into the US.

Victim's guide to not being kidnapped

"Kidnapping is an ancient sport designed to generate cash, embarrass your enemies, find wives and/or force political action." Such is the advice Robert Young Pelton offers to those considering a trip to the world's hotspots.

His website, www.comebackalive.com, a spin-off from his books, warns that of the "8,000 known kidnappings worldwide [in 2001], 6,500 were in Latin America with over half occurring in Colombia. There are, on average, 10 people kidnapped in Colombia every day." He adds: "The ideal victim of a kidnapping is a mid to high-executive professional working for a multinational corporation overseas. The kidnapping [trade] is estimated to be a $200m-a-year, tax-free business in Colombia.

"Keep in mind that all these statistics don't represent unreported snatches. Colombian groups are considered to be a major exporter of kidnapping to surrounding countries. [As a hostage] you will most likely be blindfolded, gagged and bound. If you squirm or bite they'll thump you a few times to settle you down. Your first destination is a house or country hide-out where you are kept in a room with no windows. To prove their point, they may photograph you with a Polaroid or record your voice on a cheap hand-held recorder. They may interrogate you to find out just how much you're worth."

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