Friday, January 2, 2004

DAKAR, Senegal — American authorities are investigating whether a Boeing 727 that shattered in a deadly Christmas Day crash off West Africa was the same jet that vanished in Angola last year, setting off a worldwide search, a U.S. State Department spokesman said yesterday.

A Canadian humanitarian-flight pilot told the Associated Press he saw a 727 with the missing Angola jet’s tail number at Guinea’s airport in June — a month after the jet’s disappearance.

The plane was reregistered in Guinea and flown by Lebanese-owned Union des Transports Africains (UTA), pilot Bob Strothers said.

“We saw it on the ramp,” Mr. Strothers said by telephone from the Guinea capital, Conakry. “A new registration had been painted on the aluminum part, and underneath … you could see the old registration number, which matches the plane that went missing.”

The plane that crashed off Benin on Christmas, killing at least 130 of the 161 persons aboard, was Guinean-registered and operated by UTA.

The information heightened the mystery surrounding the missing jet, which took off from an airport in Luanda, Angola, on May 25 and disappeared.

The United States has led an international hunt for the Angola 727, using satellite surveillance to check airstrips around the world, fearing that terrorists might have taken it for a September 11-style attack.

American officials also have suggested a business dispute as a reason for the disappearance of the Angola jet.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said: “We’re aware of the reports. We’re checking into them.”

UTA offices in Guinea and in Lebanon have been deserted since the Christmas crash, with police surrounding the Guinea offices.

The Christmas Day crash killed the wife and son of the airline’s owner, who survived. He and the plane’s Libyan pilot have not been seen publicly since leaving the hospital.

Angola aviation officials said they would withhold comment pending more information.

In Guinea, transportation officials said they investigated Mr. Strothers’ report that the planes were the same and found it to be false.

“He was mistaken,” senior aviation deputy Dominique Mara said. “This wasn’t the plane from Luanda. The Transport Ministry has denied this claim.”

Also, the FBI has issued a worldwide alert for American Ben Charles Padilla, who reportedly was seen boarding the Angola jet with another man just before it disappeared.

Mr. Padilla’s family in Florida said he was hired to repossess the jet after Air Angola failed to make lease payments.

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