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U.S. investigates background of downed plane

Image: Benin crash survivors
Survivors rested near the scene of the jet crash in Benin on Christmas Day.Benin TV via APTN
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. authorities are investigating whether a Boeing 727 that shattered in a deadly Christmas Day crash off West Africa was the same jet whose disappearance in Angola last year set off a worldwide search, a State Department spokesman said Friday.

Also, 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’s old tail number was not fully covered, and the plane was reregistered in Guinea and flown by Lebanese-owned Union des Transports Africains, pilot Bob Strothers said.

“We saw it on the ramp,” 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 Day, killing at least 130 of the 161 people aboard, was Guinean-registered and operated by Union des Transports Africains.

Strothers said he believed UTA had at least two Boeing 727s at the time of the crash, making it impossible for him to judge whether the vanished Angola plane and the crashed Benin jet were the same.

Strothers first disclosed his information before the Christmas Day crash, in which the plane, carrying mostly Lebanese, clipped a building at the end of the runway and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

Seven-month-old mystery
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 the Angola plane for a Sept. 11, 2001-style attack.

U.S. officials also have cited a possible business dispute as a reason for the disappearance of the Angola jet.

Lebanese news media suggested Friday that the two planes were the same. But aviation officials in Lebanon and others there who are knowledgeable about the country’s aviation industry discounted the idea — telling the AP that the plane that crashed off Benin appeared to be much older than the one that went missing from Angola.

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

U.S. officials have refused to provide any details concerning the search for the Angola plane. Fintor said all efforts were being made to find it.

Union des Transports Africains officials could not be reached for comment Friday. UTA offices in Guinea and in Lebanon have been deserted since the Christmas Day crash, with police surrounding the Guinea offices.

People inspect the wreckage of a Beirut bound passenger jet that crashed at a beach Thursday after take off in Cotonou, Benin.

Spokesmen with Interpol in France could not immediately be reached Friday.

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

The 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.

In Guinea, transport officials said they investigated 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.”

Guinea Transport Minister Cellou Dallein Diallo told reporters in Conakry that UTA took out insurance on a Boeing jet on June 27 — a month after the Angola jet disappeared. It was unclear Friday when UTA started flying the 727 registered to it.

The FBI has also put out a worldwide alert for American Ben Charles Padilla, who allegedly was seen boarding the Angola jet with another man just before it disappeared.

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

His sister, Benita Padilla-Kirkland, told the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that she feared that the plane had crashed or that the 51-year-old Padilla was being held against his will.

The Angola plane bore the tail number N844AA when it disappeared. A Federal Aviation Administration online database said that tail number was assigned to a Boeing 727 registered to Aerospace Sales & Leasing Co. Inc. in Miami.

It was that number that Strothers said he saw on the jet at the Guinea airport in June.

On Christmas Day, an AP reporter on the scene of the crash noted the number GIH 161 V71 on the tail of the downed plane.

That number was different from both that of the Angola jet and of the jet Strothers said he saw in Guinea in June.

In Lebanon, Lebanese survivors of the Christmas Day crash said the jet that crashed was antiquated and in bad shape — clearly much older than the plane that disappeared in Angola, aviation experts said.