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Plane mystery deepens

Kuala Lumpur, March 9: The discovery that two passengers carrying stolen passports on the disappeared Malaysia Airlines plane had bought their tickets from the same agency in Thailand has raised fears of foul play, although possible mechanical failure and pilot error are also being probed.

An intriguing twist has been added with the Malaysian air force today saying a review had found that the Beijing-bound Boeing 777-200ER might have reversed course before losing contact around 1.30am yesterday.

It’s not clear whether the U-turn was prompted by a mechanical problem or a hijack, and there’s still no explanation why the pilots neither reported a diversion nor sent a distress call.

Almost 48 hours on, 22 aircraft and 42 ships from six countries had found no wreckage, deepening the mystery about the fate of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members aboard Flight MH370 that took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.41am yesterday.

Vietnam authorities said tonight a navy plane had spotted an object suspected to be a plane door in the Gulf of Thailand, northeast of Malaysia and south of Vietnam, but it was too dark to be certain. Some Vietnamese media reports claimed the “yellow object” had turned out to be a coral reef.

Officials in Rome and Vienna have said that Italian Luigi Maraldi, 37, and Austrian Christian Kozel, 30, whose names appear on the flight manifest had their passports stolen in Thailand and were not on the plane. But there’s no agreement on a possible terrorist attack.

The lack of a distress call prompted theories that the plane had disintegrated in an explosion. “It had to be quick because there was no communication,” John Goglia, a US plane crash expert, said.

But a US official said a Pentagon system that looks for flashes around the world had detected no explosion over the Gulf of Thailand, where the plane was thought to have disappeared.

Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein, however, said that after the “turn-back”, the plane might have gone down off Malaysia’s west coast.

Forged travel documents are also used routinely by smugglers and illegal immigrants, Chinese aviation safety and hijackings expert Xu Ke pointed out. “My guess is that illegal migration is also a possibility,” Xu said.

Potential clue

But Steve Vickers, chief of a Hong Kong-based security consulting company, said the presence of multiple travellers on stolen passports aboard a single jet was rare and a potential clue.

The BBC reported that the two men using the stolen passports had bought the tickets together and were flying on to Europe from Beijing, meaning they didn’t have to apply for a Chinese visa and undergo further checks.

Booking records show both men had bought one-way tickets last week at the same travel agency at Pattaya in Thailand, where the passports were stolen.

The key issue was “who really checked in and what they looked like”, Vickers said.

As questions were asked how Kuala Lumpur airport had allowed two passengers to check in with stolen passports without an alert popping up on the computer, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said investigators were viewing video footage of the passengers.

“We have CCTV recordings of those passengers from check-in bags to the departure point,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said.

Vietnamese navy boats reached the two 15km oil slicks spotted from the air yesterday on the Gulf of Thailand but found no clues. The search was being extended to Malaysia’s west coast too.

The lack of debris fuelled the “bomb” theory, suggesting the aircraft disintegrated at around 35,000 feet — the altitude at which it was cruising when last contacted. Just 9 per cent of fatal accidents happen at cruising altitude.

If the plane had plunged intact, breaking up only on impact with the water, search teams would have expected to find a fairly concentrated pattern of debris, sources said.

More suspects

Malaysian transport minister Hussein said the authorities were looking at two more possible cases of suspicious identities and were in touch with America’s FBI. “All the four names are with me,” he said, without giving details.

Global police Interpol said it had records of the two stolen passports but no country had checked its database for them in the two years between the thefts and the flight’s takeoff. It said it was “examining additional suspect passports”.

Malaysian officials said that five ticketed passengers had failed to board, and their luggage was removed from the plane before take-off.

Malaysia has not been a terror target in recent decades, although some of the planning for the 9/11 attacks was done in the Southeast Asian nation, which has a relatively lax visa policy.


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