Wed, May 25, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Colombian university president missing in US

AP, NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

Searchers using tracking dogs, boats and a helicopter scoured the wetlands of a nature preserve in Louisiana for a third day on Monday in search of a university leader from Colombia who failed to return from a weekend birdwatching and photography jaunt in the swampy preserve teeming with alligators, venomous snakes and other wildlife.

Francisco Piedrahita, head of Universidad Icesi in Cali, disappeared on Saturday afternoon after being dropped off by a taxi driver near about 10km of nature trails at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Reserve near New Orleans.

An avid birdwatcher, the 65-year-old university president was reported missing by his driver who had waited about two hours for him to return, according to authorities.

“We have no reason to suspect foul play,” said Colonel John Fortunato, a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s spokesman.

Piedrahita had traveled last week to Tulane University in New Orleans. He hired the taxi driver for the day and told him he would return on Saturday after about 25 to 45 minutes, according to park superintendent Carol Clark.

“After two hours, the cab driver flagged down one of our [US] National Park Service law enforcement rangers and said he hadn’t come back yet,” Clark said. “Shortly thereafter, we started searching.”

Searchers on Monday continued the manhunt. Their search lasted on Saturday until about midnight and continued on Sunday and Monday, as search-and-rescue crews used trained dogs, all-terrain vehicles, bicycles and a helicopter.

The area where Piedrahita vanished is on about 400 hectares of forest and swamp. It is bounded by hurricane levees and a bayou within a larger 9,300 hectare tract called the Barataria Unit.

That unit — one of six separate areas that make up the park — includes boardwalks through swampy areas.

Piedrahita, as well as the dean of Icesi’s business school and a staffer who is writing its accreditation report, had traveled from Cali for informal advice about the report, according to Tulane economics professor John Trapani. He said the two others left on Saturday.

Alligators and deer are the only large wildlife native to the preserve, which also has occasional problems with feral hogs. Venomous snakes are also native to the area, but authorities say the last person bitten in the area had put his hand in front of one.

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