Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Manila to divert flights due to rocket launch

A Chinese fisherman was killed and 25 more are in custody after a gun battle in Palau waters, but two Palau police officers and an American pilot have been missing since a spotter plane attempted an emergency water landing on Sunday.

The missing men are Palau police officers Earl Decherong and Willy Mays Towai, and the pilot is Frank Ohlinger, Palau President Johnson Toribiong said in a statement released on Facebook.

"Today is a sad day for Palau," Toribiong said in the statement. "Two of our finest and bravest police officers ... are missing."

The plane went down after Palau authorities discovered what they believe was an illegal Chinese fishing operation. A police boat confronted a smaller fishing vessel on Sunday, and the spotter plane was searching for the Chinese "mother ship," Toribiong said in his statement.

When the navigation system failed and the plane ran low on fuel, the officers radioed that they were gliding into a water landing, although they could see no light or land, Toribiong said. A search effort continues today, but no signs of the three men or their missing plane have been found.

A search team of military and civilian boats and planes continued to scan the waters all day yesterday, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. j.g. Richard Russell. As of last night they had searched an area of 6,500 square miles, which is larger than the entire state of Connecticut.

"We will continue to search until sundown, and once again (today) at morning's first light we will be resuming the search," Russell said.

The plane that went down was a Cessna from ABA Sky Inc., a rental company in Palau, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an online database. Ohlinger was assisting police with their operation, according to the Palau government.

The dramatic turn of events that led to the missing plane began at dawn Saturday when a Palau government boat apprehended a green Chinese fishing vessel, which was suspected of fishing illegally in a conservation area.

Officers from Palau's Fish and Wildlife Division pleaded with the boat to stop before firing warning shots, according to Palau court documents acquired by Agence France-Presse.

At some point during the exchange, the fishing boat allegedly tried to ram the government boat, said Fermin Meriang, a spokesman for the Palau president, so officers fired at the engines of the fishing vessel. One of the Chinese fishermen was shot, he said.

"No one aimed directly at the man, so one of the bullets must have ricocheted off the engine and struck him in the thigh," Meriang said.

Once the fishing boat was disabled, Palau authorities arrested five fishermen and rushed the injured fisherman to Kayangel -- the northernmost state in Palau -- Meriang said. However, Kayangel does not have an extensive medical facility, and the fisherman bled to death before he could be moved to a hospital in Koror, Meriang said.

With the other fisherman in custody, it was clear this smaller fishing vessel was only an offshoot of a larger operation, Meriang said, so Palau authorities then set off in search of the "mother ship."

They found it in nearby waters on Monday, he said.

Onboard were another 20 Chinese fishermen, who allegedly set their own vessel on fire to destroy cargo and evidence of fishing, he said. The fishermen then fled into smaller boats that did not have engines, but were soon rounded up by Palau authorities.

Each fisherman has been charged with illegal fishing and unlawful entry into Palau, Meriang said.

"We have them all," Meriang said. "We have 25 crew in custody in addition to the one who passed away,"

The ongoing search for the three missing men includes a large Coast Guard cutter and an aircraft, but Palau has also offered a "flotilla of local boats" to assist, Meriang said.

Also joining the search is a mega-yacht owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who ventured to Palau after visiting Guam about a week ago. "The Octopus" has a helicopter of its own, and it is assisting with the search, Toribiong said in his Facebook statement.

"I ask for your prayers for the captain and these two fine young police officers," Toribiong said in his Facebook statement.

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