2 Palau police, US pilot vanish during boat search

AP News
Posted: Apr 03, 2012 10:28 PM
2 Palau police, US pilot vanish during boat search

The U.S. Coast Guard and a mega-yacht owned by billionaire Paul Allen are searching the Pacific for an American pilot and two Republic of Palau police officers whose plane disappeared as they tried to track down a Chinese vessel that was allegedly fishing illegally.

The search follows a deadly confrontation between Palau officers and a smaller Chinese boat that was part of the same fishing operation. One fisherman was killed Saturday after police fired on the fishing vessel as it tried to ram the officers' boat, Fermin Meriang, a spokesman for Palau's president, told the Pacific Daily News ( http://bit.ly/HQTKOG).

Meriang said officers had aimed for the ship's engines. "One of the bullets must have ricocheted off the engine and struck him in the thigh," he said, adding the fisherman bled to death before he could be taken to a hospital.

The missing men had been aboard a Cessna that was dispatched to track a larger Chinese fishing boat.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been searching for the three since the pilot reported Sunday that they were running low on fuel and having navigational problems.

Joining in the search, which spans more than 6,500 square nautical miles, is the 'Octopus,' a 126-meter (414-foot) yacht owned by Allen. The Microsoft co-founder visited Guam, some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from Palau, about a week ago, and the Coast Guard asked for the yacht's assistance because it was in the area.

"The captain of Octopus has been in constant contact with Coast Guard officials through days of searching," said David Postman, spokesman for Allen's investment company, Vulcan.

The boat the plane had been looking for was ultimately found. About 20 Chinese fishermen from that vessel, and five from the smaller ship where the shooting occurred, have been charged with illegal fishing and other counts, according to court records.

The plane was believed to have gone down near the republic's southernmost island of Peleliu, said Lt. j.g. Richard Russell, enforcement officer for Sector Guam. But since the plane's navigational equipment was failing, the pilot wasn't able to give an accurate report.

"Right now we're hoping we can find some kind of debris or clue about where this plane may have gone down," Russell said. "We're really digging into this as deeply as we can."

Rescuers have been poring over transcripts of the pilot's conversation with the airport and over weather reports to try and match his description of the cloud cover.

Palau is in the mid-Pacific Ocean, some 500 miles east of the Philippines.

Palau President Johnson Toribiong on his Facebook page identified the missing pilot as American Frank Ohlinger and the officers as Earl Decherong and Willy Mays Towai.

"I ask for your prayers for the captain and these two fine young police officers," he wrote.