WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, acutely sensitive to any appearance of aiding the Palestine Liberation Organization, strongly denied yesterday that it had helped find Yasser Arafat after his plane vanished in a Libyan sandstorm.
"Contrary to various press reports, we were not involved in any effort to help locate the plane," said the State Department spokeswoman, Margaret D. Tutwiler. Asked if she had any reaction to the fact that Mr. Arafat had been found alive, she replied: "No."
The attempt to engage Washington in the search for Mr. Arafat's plane began with former President Jimmy Carter, according to administration officials. Mr. Carter, the architect of the Camp David Middle East peace accords, maintains ties with prominent Palestinians.
After he was called by PLO headquarters in Tunis, Mr. Carter called the White House between 10 and 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to request a satellite search for the plane.
The request went to Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser, who later informed Mr. Bush. Officials agreed to examine the request but postponed a decision until yesterday morning. But by then Mr. Arafat had been found, officials said.
At about the same time, French aircraft were en route from Chad and Djibouti to assist in the search, according to diplomatic sources.
Separately, Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman who has close ties to the PLO, spoke several times through the night with Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary of state for the Near East.
She did not make a "formal request" for help, Miss Tutwiler said. But Mr. Djerejian was in touch with American embassies in Tunisia and Egypt seeking information.
Officials said the United States also mounted an effort, drawing on intelligence sources, to ascertain the PLO leader's fate, which could have had profound repercussions for U.S. interests throughout the Middle East and for the U.S.-sponsored peace process.
But the officials, who declined to be identified, drew a sharp distinction between gathering information for America's own policy purposes and helping the PLO search for its missing leader.
The episode highlighted the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of U.S. dealings with the PLO.
Officially, the United States has no relations or contact with the organization. The United States broke off dialogue with the PLO in 1990, when Mr. Arafat failed to repudiate a faction deemed responsible for a terrorist raid on an Israeli beach.
The U.S. view of the Tunis-based leadership worsened when it backed Iraq in the Persian Gulf war and later praised the Soviet coup-plotters who tried to topple Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
At the insistence of Israel, which regards the PLO as a terror organization bent on the Jewish state's destruction, the PLO has no official role in the peace talks.
However, the PLO has played an important behind-the-scenes role in setting policy for the talks. Both Mrs. Ashrawi and Faisal Husseini, another respected leader in the territories, are in regular touch both with U.S. officials and with PLO leaders in Tunis. They and other Palestinian leaders say the PLO represents their national aspirations.