Guerrillas kidnap two journalists

Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 9:37 p.m.
BOGOTA, Colombia - An American photographer and a British reporter on assignment for the Los Angeles Times have been kidnapped by Colombian rebels, the first foreign journalists to be abducted in recent memory in the country's long war.
Scott Dalton, a native of Conroe, Texas; and Ruth Morris, a British national, have been "retained" by the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the guerrilla group said in a statement Thursday on a clandestine rebel radio station.
The kidnappings come just days after three other Westerners were reported missing and believed taken by a Colombian paramilitary group in Panama, just north of the border.
Robert Pelton, Megan Smaker and Mark Wedeven were reportedly seized by the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Pelton gained worldwide attention with an interview of American Taliban suspect John Walker Lindh while covering the war in Afghanistan for CNN.
Dalton and Morris had been intercepted Tuesday at a rebel roadblock in Arauca state, one of the most violent regions of Colombia. They were led away from their taxi with hoods on their heads, but had been told they were being taken for an encounter with a rebel commander, their driver, Madiel Ariza, told The Associated Press.
Ariza said the rebels told him to leave their encampment the following day, and that the ELN would turn over the journalists to the Red Cross within a day or two. But the ELN statement said the journalists were being held.
"In due time, they will be freed, when the political and military conditions permit," the statement said.
The Los Angeles Times said the pair were working for the newspaper.
"The situation is very fluid, and our primary concern is for Ruth and Scott's safety," the paper said in a statement.
The kidnapping comes as the United States is beefing up military aid to the Colombian government, which has been battling the ELN and a larger rebel group for 38 years.
Last week, dozens of U.S. special forces trainers arrived in Arauca to train Colombian troops to battle the guerrillas. The Colombian soldiers will be tasked with protecting an oil pipeline in Arauca that has been sabotaged by the rebels numerous times.
The kidnapping occurred on a road south of the Colombian town of Saravena, 205 miles northeast of Bogota. Several dozen of the U.S. special forces are to be stationed at an army base in Saravena, located near the Venezuelan border.
The ELN statement said the two journalists had arrived in the guerrilla stronghold without their permission.
"You must take into account that Arauca state has been declared a war zone by the American government and the Colombian state," the rebel statement said. "For that reason, the National Liberation Army is on a war footing and is (acting) in the defense of the dignity of all the people of eastern Colombia."
The ELN said they were "prepared to guarantee the lives and security of these journalists," and did not issue any demands for their release.
The U.S. Embassy in Bogota said it was following the situation.
"We are concerned about the individuals who have been reported missing," an embassy spokesman said. "We continue to monitor the situation closely with the Colombian government and State Department in Washington to obtain the most accurate information."
Both Dalton and Morris live in Bogota, the Colombian capital.
Dalton, 34, is a freelance photographer. He had been a photographer for the AP for about nine years, based in Panama, Guatemala and then Colombia, until the summer of 2002. He left to pursue video projects while freelancing for Bloomberg News, The New York Times, The Miami Herald and other media.
Morris has written articles as a freelancer for the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, the Sun-Sentinel in south Florida and other publications. She previously was a staff writer for Dow Jones Newswires in Bogota.
The kidnapping came as a delegation of the Inter American Press Association was visiting Colombia to urge the government of President Alvaro Uribe to protect journalists operating in this South American country and punish those who kill and kidnap them.
Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries to work in, but local journalists have been the ones usually targeted.
Nonetheless, foreign journalists working in Colombia could be targeted at any time, warned Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co., who was in the delegation.
"We have to believe that if Colombian journalists are murdered with impunity, it raises the risk to all journalists who are here," Fuller told the AP on Wednesday. The Tribune Publishing Co. owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Pelton, a 47-year-old freelance journalist, is also the author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places," a guide book to the world's conflict zones. Smaker and Wedeven are Pelton's traveling companions.
The Colombian Red Cross said it was in contact with the paramilitary group for a handover of the three travelers.

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