DAKAR, Senegal -- American authorities are investigating whether a Boeing 727 shattered in a deadly crash off West Africa last month was the same jet that vanished in Angola last year, setting off a worldwide search, a US State Department spokesman said yesterday.
Also, a Canadian humanitarian-flight pilot said 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.
"We saw it on the ramp," pilot Bob 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 on Dec. 25, killing at least 130 of the 161 people aboard, was Guinean-registered and operated by Union des Transports Africains.
However, 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 plane that vanished in Angola and the crashed Benin jet were the same.
Strothers disclosed his information before the crash, in which the plane, carrying mostly Lebanese passengers, 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 plane to use in a Sept. 11, 2001-style attack.
Lebanese news media yesterday suggested the two planes were the same. But aviation officials in Lebanon discounted the idea -- saying that the plane that crashed off Benin appeared much older.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said, "We're aware of the reports. We're checking into them."
US officials have refused to provide any details concerning the search for the Angola plane, with Fintor saying all efforts were being made to find it.
UTA officials could not be reached for comment.