BOGOTA, Colombia - Leftist rebels seized about two dozen biological researchers, including an American, in western Colombia, and a guerrilla leader on Friday promised to release them soon.
National Liberation Army commander Nicolas Rodriguez said his forces had detained the scientists to investigate their reason for being in the area. The researchers have been missing since Wednesday.
The team was from Colombia's National University and had been in the grassy highlands of western Colombia in Antioquia province to study the local biodiversity. Colombia is among the most biologically diverse countries in the world.
Rodriguez, interviewed by phone on national radio chain Radionet, said he was now satisfied the team was conducting an environment-related investigation and that he would have the researchers freed as soon as a safe mechanism for their release could be organized. Rodriguez told Radionet that he did not know precisely how many researchers had been seized.
Among the captives is John Douglas Lynch, a native of Collins, Iowa.
Lynch recently retired from the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he was a professor in the school of biological sciences for nearly 30 years.
He conducted research in Colombia on amphibians for at least two decades and upon retirement moved to Bogota, where he became a curator at the National Science Institute of Colombia.
The army said guerrilla group - known by its Spanish initials of ELN - intercepted the scientific team as they drove along a road and took them to an unknown location.
Sporadic fighting between army units and the ELN in the region Friday may delay the release, said the spokesman, Maj. Oscar Anzola of the Army's 4th Brigade, based in the provincial capital of Medellin.
The group of 21 to 26 people had been missing since Wednesday, police spokesman Carlos Perdomo said. The group included six professors, five biologists, 10 students and several assistants, according to the National University.
One of the students has dual German-Colombian nationality, according to the German Embassy in Bogota, which refused to reveal the student's identity.
The area where the scientific team was working has been wracked for years by clashes between leftist rebels and paramilitary groups backed by landowners. Colombia has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world.
The scientific team had been based in a rural school in the La Union area southeast of Medellin.