The director of the Prensa Libre newspaper, which employed all four of the journalists, said two of them were seized during protests on Sunday and the other two were taken when they were trying to secure the others' release.

"We're extremely worried about their safety," Gonzalo Marroquin, said.

He said the ex-paramilitaries holding the two reporters and two photographers were demanding payment for helping Guatemala's security forces during a 36-year civil war.

The first two journalists had gone to cover an election rally in Huehuetenango for former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who is running for president in 9 November elections.

About 200,000 people were
killed in Guatemala's civil war

Brutal dictatorship

Marroquin said they were seized while investigating a protest by Maya Indian ex-paramilitaries who had blocked a major highway to protest against being left out of a controversial government compensation programme.

Hundreds of thousands of mostly Mayan paramilitaries were forced to help the Guatemalan army fight leftist rebels during the civil war, in which 200,000 people were killed.

Particularly active during Rios Montt's bloody 1982-83 dictatorship, the paramilitaries have been blamed by rights groups for numerous atrocities, including massacres of unarmed civilians.

In 1999, then US President Bill Clinton apologised for America's support for Guatemala's brutal right-wing government.

He said: "For the United States, it is important to state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence outfits which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong and the United States must not repeat that mistake."

America had supported brutal right wing governments in Guatemala during a 36-year civil war in which 200,000 people died.

No US president before had so directly admitted the US role in the atrocities.