3 Americans Are Released by Colombians

Times Staff Writer

A right-wing paramilitary group on Thursday released a Torrance travel author and two other Americans kidnapped near the Colombia-Panama border earlier this week, a government official confirmed.

Robert Young Pelton, 47, author of the book "The World's Most Dangerous Places," Oakland firefighter Megan A. Smaker and Mark Wedeven, 22, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, were released in the town of Unguia in a remote area about 200 miles from Bogota, said Corey Brown, a spokeswoman for Rep. Jane Harman.

On Tuesday, paramilitary leader Carlos Castano told Reuters news service that the three Americans had been taken into custody by about 150 of his soldiers to protect them from leftist guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Brown said Thursday evening that the U.S. State Department had "confirmed reports that the three were released and in good health and appeared to be unharmed."

They will travel by boat today to the town of Quibdo and then to Medellin while American consulate officials arrange for their travel to Bogota, Brown said.

The travelers may have met in Panama City and shared a guide, Pelton's wife said this week. They all had experience traveling, but Pelton has made a career of going to dangerous places.

He has hitchhiked through war-torn Central America, and is said to have been the first journalist to set up a video interview with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, and the first American journalist to interview John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban.

Pelton has been attacked by African killer bees, survived muggings and lived through a plane crash in the highlands of Kalimantan on Borneo, according to his Web site.

He was visiting an Indian village in Panama just north of the Colombian border to research a story for National Geographic's Adventure Magazine when he was captured.

Wedeven was traveling and studying throughout Latin America for college credits, his mother said. Sometimes he stayed in hostels or among Indians in Central America, she said.

"He's not a son who will sit around for long, but even if it's just for an hour, it'll be fun to see him or hear from him," Carol Wedeven of Bremerton, Wash., said Thursday. "As a Christian, I just had to trust in the Lord that he would be OK."

Pelton's wife, Linda, declined to comment. A note attached to her door read: "We appreciate your interest and your best wishes for the safe return of Robert, Megan, Mark. However, the Pelton family will not be giving any further interviews until all three are released and safe at home.... Think positively."

Smaker has traveled dangerously before. The then-21-year-old firefighter for the California Department of Forestry told the San Francisco Chronicle in August that, after the Sept. 11 attacks, she wanted to learn more about the people of Afghanistan, so she saved money to travel to the Middle East. She went despite a less-than-supportive response from her parents, friends and colleagues.

Throughout her trip, she sent dispatches of her experiences over the Internet. From India, she described watching a mob of passengers on a train beat two men unconscious and throw them from the train. The lower-caste men allegedly stole a necklace from a woman. In Pakistan, Smaker told the Chronicle, she was detained on suspicion of being a prostitute because she traveled alone and without a veil. After she crossed into Afghanistan, Smaker said, she encountered drug lords who briefly suspected her of being a CIA agent.

"I could have died many times, but because of my job, I've developed this ability to stay calm in really [tough] situations," Smaker told the Chronicle.


Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report

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