Colombian Rebels Release Kidnapped Adventure Travel Writer

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
January 24, 2003

Members of a Colombian paramilitary group released three Americans who were taken hostage in the Darien province of Panama nearly a week ago. Danger-seeking author Robert Young Pelton was among those released. The writer was on assignment for National Geographic Adventure magazine at the time of his capture.

A U.S. Embassy official in Bogota, Colombia, confirmed this afternoon that the trio was released yesterday evening into the custody of a priest and local official from Unguia, a small town in northwestern Colombia approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) from Bogota.

It's believed that members of the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by it's Spanish acronym AUC, kidnapped the trio—Robert Young Pelton, 47, of Redondo Beach, California; Megan Smaker, 22, of Brentwood, California; and Mark Wedeven, 22, of Boulder, Colorado—sometime last weekend while they were traveling through the lawless Darien district of Panama near the Colombian border.

Carol Wedeven of Bremerton, Washington, the mother of Mark Wedeven, told National Geographic News today that she and her husband David were telephoned at 6:30 a.m. this morning by John Rogan, a U.S. Embassy official in Bogota, who informed the parents that their son was safe.

"They had talked to Robert [Young Pelton]. All three of them were safe. They were under the Colombian government's protection and were being flown up to Bogota," Wedeven said.

Wedeven said that early last weekend officials from the U.S. Consulate in Panama called to inform both she and her husband that their son Mark and two traveling companions where missing in the Darien province. "They registered to go in, and they didn't come out in time," she said.

"We were real glad that Robert was with him. That gave us a good feeling," she said. "We've just taken it step by step and just prayed. We're real glad he wasn't killed."

The trio was last seen traveling in the company of a Panamanian guide in the town of Paya, a small village of Chocoe Indians, just north of the Colombian border, according to reports provided to U.S. Embassy in Panama by Panamanian authorities.

The Reuters news agency reported on Wednesday that AUC forces lead by warlord Carlos Castano captured the trio after attacking two villages on Saturday. As many as five people were killed in the attack, according to Panamanian police reports cited by the news service.

The AUC is one of three guerrilla groups that use the sparsely-populated jungle forests and rugged hills of Panama's Darien as a refuge to elude Colombian government forces and as a base for resupply.

The Voice of America also reported on Wednesday that Castano issued an e-mail stating that the three Americans were being held for "their own safety" and would be released when safe passage could be arranged.

The Hostages

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