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Nigerian Government, Parliament at Odds Over Alleged Plane Crash - 2004-02-06

Members of the Nigerian parliament have launched an investigation into a January 30 airplane crash just off Nigeria's coast. But the government says it has already investigated and concluded there was no plane crash.

A team of lawmakers from Nigeria's Senate Committee on Aviation Friday started a probe of a plane crash in territorial waters off Lekki beach, east of Lagos. They are also calling for a revamp of the aviation regulatory system.

But the federal government says it has searched the waters for five days and, as one official put it, is 99 percent sure there was no crash.

A score of witnesses, including construction workers, an international aid worker and several beach goers said, however, they saw a small 20-seater plane plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.

Their statements were widely reported.

But Nigerian Aviation Minister Isa Yuguda said the witnesses might have mistook a landing amphibian plane for a crash, and chastised the media for spreading panic.

"The only aircraft that operated into Lekki in Lagos that morning was an amphibious aircraft Cesna 208, which eventually returned to base," he said. "Given the foreboding scenario and available evidence so far, it has become obvious that there may not have been an aircraft crash anywhere within our territorial waters."

He said, in the alternative, eye witnesses may have read too much into the Nigerian navy blowing up an illegal oil rig at the time.

Still, aviation industry experts in Nigeria are skeptical. One of them, Ona Ekhomu, says the government is hiding something.

"Have we asked the Nigerian military if they are missing any jets? Or have we asked our foreign counterparts? And of course these are people who due to the nature of their missions which is usually given to secrecy will not want to share with you that in fact we lost a jet be it Nigerian military or foreign military that was probably on a spy mission," said Ona Ekhomu.

Analysts say more than a dozen private airline companies operate in Nigeria in what they call a chaotic regulatory environment, with little monitoring or safety controls.