A 727 Identity Crisis
Here's more on the "unsolved mysteries" aspects of the crash:

Questions Arise Over W. Africa Jet Crash


Published: January 2, 2004 [Filed at 9:22 p.m. ET]

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- American authorities are investigating whether a Boeing 727 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 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.

The Missing 727

The Cotonou (Benin) Crash 727

``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.

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-style attack.

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

Lebanese news media on Friday suggested 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 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.''

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

The airline's owner survived the Christmas Day crash, but 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.''

Also, the FBI has 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 South Florida Sun-Sentinel she feared the plane crashed or the 51-year-old Padilla was being held against his will.

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