Colombian rebels detain two journalistsThree others have apparently been kidnapped in Panama

Bogotá, Colombia, January 23, 2003—Leftist rebels have detained two journalists, who were on assignment for The Los Angeles Times in the lawless Arauca Department, in eastern Colombia.

Scott Dalton, a photographer from Texas, and reporter Ruth Morris, a British national, along with their driver, Madiel Ariza, were removed from their car at a rebel roadblock sometime after 1 p.m. on January 21, on a road south of the town of Saravena, 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the capital, Bogotá.

Ariza was freed unharmed on January 22. In a phone interview today with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), he said that rebels from both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) had detained them. “There were tons of armed men, but they were treating us well,” said Ariza. The two groups have been fighting the government for almost 40 years.

Ariza said that the rebels promised to deliver the two journalists unharmed to the Red Cross, along with a message for the international community. However, the ELN announced today on a clandestine radio station that it was holding the journalists and would free them when “the political and military conditions permit,” according to an Associated Press report.

In the radio broadcast, the ELN said the journalists had arrived without its permission. “You must take into account that Arauca has been declared a war zone by the American government and the Colombian state,” the rebel statement said, according to the AP. “For that reason, the National Liberation Army is on a war footing and is acting in defense of the dignity of all people of eastern Colombia.”

The rebels also said they were “prepared to guarantee the lives and security of these journalists.”

Dalton and Morris are both experienced journalists who have worked in Colombia for years for various publications. Although it wasn’t clear what they were reporting in Arauca, dozens of U.S. Special Forces recently arrived there to train Colombian troops to protect a vital oil pipeline that runs through the region. Rebels frequently bomb the pipeline.

“We are encouraged that the rebels have reportedly pledged to release the detained journalists and call on them to do so at once,” said CPJ acting director Joel Simon. “Holding journalists against their will is not an effective way for the rebels to publicize their political concerns. To the contrary, the practice highlights the rebel’s own abuses.”

The abductions came just days after another journalist and two others were reported missing and apparently kidnapped by right-wing paramilitary fighters in Panama, north of the Colombian border.

Robert Pelton, a 47-year-old free-lance journalist with American and Canadian citizenship, was reportedly researching a story for National Geographic Adventure magazine when he was abducted along with his two American traveling companions, Megan Smaker and Mark Wedeven.

Pelton is the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places travel book and gained the first interview of American Taliban suspect John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan for CNN.

CNN reported today that U.S. officials planned to send out search patrols. U.S. Embassy officials in Colombia could not be reached for comment.

Colombia’s leading daily newspaper, El Tiempo, reported earlier this week that the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) planned to free them soon.