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U.S. to join search for 3 missing in Panama

Journalist Robert Pelton
Journalist Robert Pelton

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PANAMA CITY, Panama (CNN) -- U.S. officials plan to send out search patrols for three missing Americans, one of them a journalist, believed kidnapped by a Colombian paramilitary group last week, an embassy spokesman said.

Spokesman Guy Olson said consular officials have received no news about the three since Sunday, when the Panamanian national police reported them missing from the remote jungle province of Darien, close to the Colombian border.

"I don't think it really changes the level of concern," Olson said. "This is a very, very remote, heavily forested area. Groups go into that area and disappear for lengths of time."

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

Pelton, a freelance journalist who has formerly worked for CNN, was on assignment in Panama for National Geographic Adventure magazine, said spokeswoman Caryn Davidson. She called the two others with Pelton his traveling companions.

"While details are sketchy, we have been in contact with his family as well as government authorities and are closely monitoring the situation through U.S. officials," read a statement from the magazine Wednesday. "We're hopeful that the situation will be resolved quickly and peacefully."

Pelton is perhaps best known for being the first to gain access to U.S. Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan, an interview which aired later on CNN. He has also produced a program for the Travel Channel, "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.

The United States is working with Panama in its search for the three, officials said, and the Canadian government has been "staying in touch with American authorities, not only in Washington, but in Panama City and Bogota," said Reynald Doiron, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman.

"So far, we're just checking the initial reports that the three were abducted by a paramilitary group," Doiron said.

Panamanian national police, who have organized search parties to find the missing trio, said a witness told them the three were ambushed by guerrilla forces Friday afternoon in Darien. The group, in the company of a Panamanian guide, fled into the jungle.

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

Olson said he has not heard of any demands for ransom.

The embassy said it had seen reports that the AUC is holding the three for their own safety because of rebels in the area, and will release them soon to humanitarian organizations. Olson said those reports were encouraging.

But Doiron said Canada had no information to indicate the three might soon be released.

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.

Darien has been a sanctuary for Colombian rebels who sneak across the border into Panama and hide out before returning to Colombia.

-- CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.

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