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3 Americans, including journalist, missing in Panama

pelton
Robert Pelton interviewed American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh.

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PANAMA CITY, Panama (CNN) -- Three Americans, one a journalist, are missing and believed kidnapped by Colombian rebels, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said Tuesday.

The three are Robert Pelton, 47, who has dual citizenship with Canada; Mark Wedeven, 22; and Megan Smaker, 22.

Pelton is a freelance journalist who has worked for CNN, most notably when he was the first to gain access to John Walker Lindh, the Taliban American fighter, in Afghanistan.

He was in Panama on assignment for National Geographic Adventure magazine, said spokeswoman Karen Davidson. She did not know the two others who are missing, Davidson said.

Pelton also is under contract with the Travel Channel for a program called "Robert Young Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places," in which he enters hot spots around the globe and meets with rebel leaders and insurgents. Pelton was not in Panama for the program, said Mark Finkelpearl, the show's executive producer.

Ambush, then flight

Police said a witness told them the trio on Friday was in the province of Darien, which often is a sanctuary for Colombian rebels who sneak across the border into Panama to hide before returning to Colombia. Guerilla forces ambushed them, and the three, in the company of a Panamanian guide, fled into the jungle, the witness said.

The witness told police it appeared the attackers were members of the Colombian paramilitary. The witness said they wore armbands with the initials AUC -- a Spanish abbreviation for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

The U.S. State Department has designated the AUC as a foreign terrorist organization. Last fall, the Department of Justice charged leaders of the group with trafficking more than 17 tons of cocaine into the United States and Europe since 1997.

Panamanian national police called the U.S. Embassy Sunday and said the three were missing, said embassy spokesman Guy Olson.

Since then, Panamanian police have reinforced the area and organized search parties to find the missing Americans, Olson said.

Held for their own safety

Olson said he was encouraged by a Reuters news agency report quoting an e-mail from Carlos Castano, the AUC's leader. In it, reported the agency, Castano said the three were being held for their own safety because rebels in the area posed a threat.

"Certainly there were fears that harm could have come to them, and we just don't know, but at least it's encouraging that possibly they're alive and being held and will be released," Olson said.

Olson said he did not know of any demands for ransom.

The families of the three have been notified that they are missing, Olson said.

Pelton does not behave recklessly, said Finkelpearl of the Travel Channel.

"Robert certainly walks into those situations with his eyes wide open," Finkelpearl said. "He's also always gotten out of them every single time."


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