Two passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines plane may have been travelling under stolen passports, raising questions of foul play in one of the rarest of aviation disasters. Gavino Garay reports.
THE two stolen passport holders on board MH730 were not of Asian appearance as earlier claimed by authorities.
The Director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said late last night the two passengers were not Asian looking and they had passed through all “security protocols” before boarding the flight.
His comments contradict earlier statements by the Malaysian Home Minister that the two men were of Asian appearance.
“We have looked at the footage of the video and the photographs and it is confirmed now that they are not Asian looking men,” Mr Rahman told a late night press briefing in Kuala Lumpur.
“They have gone through screening, their baggage has been screened, their cabin baggage has
been screened and they complied fully with the protocols of immigration security,” he said.
He said authorities were now investigating the possibility of a stolen passport syndicate but he
would not be drawn on what the men looked like, suggesting that the investigation had moved away from them.
Asked if they looked African, Mr Rahman would not comment except to point out that footballer
Mario Balotelli was Italian but was not Italian looking.
And he announced an expansion of the search area to 185 kilometres on both land and sea,
moving outwards to Vietnam and Indonesia.
Mr Rahman released maps showing the increased search area saying that “every inch of ground in this area will be covered”.
He said the search area was divided into blocks to be covered by each ship and aircraft involved in the search he released a map of the new search zone.
Earlier Home Minister Zahid Hamidi reportedly said that the two passengers who used the passports looked Asian in appearance.
“I am still puzzled how come (immigration officers) cannot think: an Italian and Austrian but with Asian facial features,’’ he was quoted as saying by Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama.
Earlier officials said that up to five passengers checked in to fly on the flight — but didn’t board the plane.
Their luggage was taken off after officials realised but it is not clear how they fit in to the mystery of the vanished jet.
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And Vietnamese authorities scrambled rescue helicopters to check a yellow object floating in its waters that rescue teams suspected could be a life raft from the missing Malaysia Airlines jet.
A Vietnamese jet had seen the object but was unable to get close enough to the object, seen about 140km southwest of Tho Chu island, to see what it was.
The chief of office of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam, Mr Pham Viet Dung, said a team who reached the object at about 3pm Hanoi time (7pm AEST) had discovered it was the casing of a sea cable and not connected to the plane.
“The object is not the life raft,” he said
“It’s not an object from the aircraft.
“It has come from a sea cable.”
Despite the setback, he said helicopters and aircraft would continue searching the area for evidence of the missing plane.
Speaking at a press briefing in Kuala Lumpur today, the director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation said a huge international search had failed to find any wreckage from the Boeing 777, let alone the plane itself.
Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said authorities were mystified after a search involving 34 planes, 40 ships and more than 100 people had been unable to locate any trace of the aircraft.
“We have not found anything that appears to be an object from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft,” he announced.
He said countries from around the region and the world were contributing to the search effort and it would continue until they had answers.
“Every second, every hour, we are looking at every inch of the sea,” he said.
“We are looking at all angles of what could possibly happen on that flight,” Mr Rahman explained when asked if there could have been an explosion on-board.
“Also there is talk about possible hijack and this is not discounted. We are looking at every angle. We are looking at every aspect of what could have happened.”
He said the Malaysian authorities were “equally puzzled” — as all aviation experts were — about what had happened to the plane.
“A mystery is how you can put it,” he said.
Mr Rahman would not comment on the ongoing investigation into two men who travelled on the flight using stolen passports.
There are reports that a Malaysian government minister has confirmed that the men using stolen Italian and Austrian passports were of Asian appearance but Mr Rahman would not be drawn on this.
“The authorities concerned are investigating the case. The investigative team is now, as we speak, is going through all the reports, going through all the video footage and once we get any report from them we will inform to all of you,” he said.
He also confirmed that some passengers who checked in for the flight did not end up flying and their baggage was removed from the aircraft under flight regulations before takeoff.
“Yes there are issues about passengers that did not fly on the aircraft. There are five of them,” Mr Rahman said.
“All baggage of passengers not flown on that particular morning was removed from the aircraft.”
Intelligence agencies around the globe have joined the so-far fruitless search for answers to the mysterious disappearance — with the threat of terrorism unable to be discounted.
More than two days after the plane carrying 239 people, including six Australians, lost contact with air traffic controllers, reports emerged of a door being spotted by aerial search teams in waters of the Vietnam coast.
READ MORE: THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
However, Mr Rahman confirmed that any such debris did not come from the missing aircraft.
Investigators are also now probing whether the plane attempted to turn back in the last moments before it vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Saturday.
As the desperate search operation continues over a widening expanse, intelligence agencies, including the FBI, are focusing their efforts on two passengers who boarded the aircraft with stolen passports.
So far there is no evidence of terrorism, with a source telling America’s NBC News that no electronic “chatter” had been detected linking any known terror group to the likely disaster.
And while several alternate theories have emerged — including that the plane simply disintegrated in midair — authorities continue to reiterate that they simply do not know what happened and are looking into every possibility.
FEW SIGNS FOUND IN SEARCH AND RESCUE MISSION
There was hope early today that Vietnamese searchers had spotted possible aircraft debris.
“We received information from a Vietnamese plane saying that they found two broken objects, which seem like those of an aircraft, located about 80 kilometres to the southwest of Tho Chu Island,’’ said an official from Vietnam’s National Committee for Search and Rescue, who did not want to be named.
The island is part of a small archipelago off the south-western tip of Vietnam, and lies northeast of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, from where Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 left early Saturday bound for Beijing.
The deputy chief of staff of Vietnam’s army, Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, was quoted in the state-run Thanh Nien newspaper as saying that searchers had spotted what appeared to be a door from the missing jet.
“From this object, hopefully (we) will find the missing plane,” Tuan said.
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However, Mr Rahman said such reports could not be confirmed and no debris or wreckage from the plane had been found.
He said the search — involving eight nations — would be intensified. The search region has already been widened from 20 nautical miles (37km) to 50 nautical miles (92.6km) of the last point of contact of the plane.
AUSTRALIAN ORIONS IN THE HUNT
One Royal Australian Air Force Orion search aircraft left last night bound for RAAF Butterworth in Malaysia, where it will be based for the search effort.
The second left Darwin this morning.
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Acting Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, said the Orion is ideally suited to this type of operation, with its variety of sensors and electro-optics detectors.
“This is a terrible tragedy and the Australian Defence Force stands ready to do all it can to assist our Malaysian friends,” Air Marshal Binskin said in a statement.
“This has affected all Australians very deeply and our thoughts are with the families of all those caught in this incident.”
PILOT MAY HAVE TRIED TO TURN BACK
Late Sunday, Malaysian officials said that MH370 may have inexplicably turned back towards Kuala Lumpur in its final moments as they tried to shed light on the mystery of what may have caused a reliable aircraft model with no known safety issues to slip off the radar.
“There is a distinct possibility the aeroplane did a turn-back, deviating from the course,” said Malaysia’s air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, citing radar data.
SEE PICS: SHOCK AND SADNESS AT MISSING PLANE
But Malaysia Airlines (MAS) chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the Boeing 777’s systems would have set off alarm bells.
“When there is an air turn-back the pilot would be unable to proceed as planned,’’ he said, adding authorities were “quite puzzled’’ over the situation.
The plane, captained by a veteran MAS pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be stable.
The search zone has been extended after military radar showed a possibility that the plane made a “turn-back” and the area for the search and rescue now includes the Malacca strait.
Authorities say they are using both the military and civil radar in their probe and “trying to make sense of it”.
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A team of American experts is en route to Asia to assist in the investigation, including officials from the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing. The FBI is also being sent, although officials stressed there was no evidence of terrorism yet.
Concerns have been expressed that the flight may have been targeted by an anti-Chinese group such as the Uighur militants from China’s restive Xinjiang province in the country’s northwest but, again, there is no evidence or claim of responsibility so far.
In fact, sources told NBC News that only “wackos” had so far claimed to be behind the incident, as often happens in the wake of global catastrophes.
Known terror groups such as al Qaeda traditionally seek credit after perpetrating attacks but have stayed quiet, with no “chatter” — or intercepted communications — picked up by intelligence agencies about the plane.
Questions are still being asked about how the two passengers managed to board the ill-fated aircraft using stolen passports.
Interpol has confirmed it knew about the stolen passports but said no authorities checked its vast databases before the jetliner departed Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Warning that “only a handful of countries’’ routinely make such checks, Interpol secretary-general Ronald Noble chided authorities for “waiting for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates”.
Last night, officials revised the number of people travelling on fake passports on the plane from four to two. There was confusion after one officer said it was four but later another official said it was definitely only two.
The duo were captured together on CCTV from check-in to boarding and the vision is being examined by investigators desperate to find out what happened to the flight.
Mr Rahman would not confirm the nationalities of the two men or their origins.
READ MORE: STOLEN PASSPORTS OF TERROR?
Unofficial reports state two European names — Christian Kozel, an Austrian, and Luigi Maraldi of Italy — were listed on the passenger manifest but neither man boarded the plane, officials said. Both had their passports stolen in Thailand over the past two years.
Thai police said they were investigating a possible passport racket as flight information gave new details about bookings made in Thailand with the two stolen European passports.
The tickets booked in Maraldi and Kozel’s names were made on March 6 and issued in the Thai city of Pattaya, a popular beach resort south of Bangkok.
The e-ticket numbers for their flights are consecutive and both were paid for in Thai baht. Each ticket cost $690.
“Kozel’’ was booked to travel from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on MH370, then on to Amsterdam and Frankfurt. “Maraldi’’ was booked on the same flights until Amsterdam, where he was to continue to Copenhagen.
READ MORE: DID BROKEN WING WEAKEN THE PLANE?
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was careful not to comment on terrorism claims.
“I am really not going to feed speculation. People should not jump to conclusions, we just don’t have answers to these questions,” he said, as he refused to buy into commentary on the stolen passports.
However, he urged people not to be scared of flying in the wake of the incident.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop admitted the revelations about stolen passports were concerning.
“There may be no connection at all, but nevertheless it is a worrying development,” she told ABC Radio.
Ms Bishop claimed she was not aware of any pre-existing concerns about passport controls in Malaysia.
“But it has been a global issue for some time,” the Minister said, arguing she didn’t think it was an isolated incident.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the revelation about stolen passports reaffirmed the need to increase the use of ePassports.
“It’s one of the reasons why we need to go more and more towards the chip passports, which have the biodata in them so it only improves the level of checks which can be done,” Mr Morrison told 2GB Radio.
INVESTIGATION INCLUDES DAMAGED WINGTIP
Malaysia Airlines says the Boeing 777-200 that disappeared had suffered a broken wing tip in 2012 but was fully repaired and cleared to fly.
The incident occurred in a minor collision with another aircraft on the ground at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, according to previous reports.
“The aircraft had a clipped wing tip. A portion, possibly a metre of the wing tip, was torn,’’ Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters.
“It was repaired by Boeing and cleared by Boeing and was approved by various authorities. It was safe to fly.’’