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‘Unprecedented’ tag as leads ring false

Sepang (Malaysia), March 10: A string of false leads today hobbled the search for the Malaysia Airlines plane that vanished early on Saturday, appearing to underline the national civil aviation chief’s remark that it was an “unprecedented mystery”.

A suspected life raft bobbing in the Gulf of Thailand turned out to be the “moss-covered cap of a cable reel”, Vietnamese authorities said. An oil slick in Malaysian waters was found not to contain jet fuel.

And what was initially thought an aircraft tail floating in the Gulf of Thailand was actually “logs tied together”, a Malaysian official said.

The Malaysian government distributed photos to foreign intelligence agencies showing two men who boarded the plane using one-way tickets and passports stolen in Thailand from an Italian and an Austrian.

It wasn’t clear whether the duo, whom Malaysian officials described only as “not Asian”, had anything to do with the disappearance of the Beijing-bound plane, which was carrying 239 people.

Police in the Thai resort of Pattaya, where a travel agency issued the men’s tickets, said they were bought by an Iranian, a “Mr Ali”.

Ali, a regular customer, had called from an Iranian phone number and asked for the cheapest fares available from Kuala Lumpur to two European destinations. “The staff suggested a flight with several stops would be cheaper, so he picked that route,” the Pattaya police chief said.

He said the tickets were paid for in cash by another Iranian, whose name he pronounced as “Asay” and who he said was questioned today.

As a three-day air-and-sea search by 10 countries failed to find any trace of the airliner, questions were being asked whether the ships, planes and helicopters searching the waters south of Vietnam were looking in the right place.

Malaysian officials said tonight they were expanding the search to a much wider area, including the Strait of Malacca, on the other side of the Malaysian peninsula from where the last contact with the vanished flight was made.

A US Navy P-3C Orion aircraft, capable of locating floating objects as small as a basketball, was sweeping the northern part of the Strait, north of Sumatra and hundreds of miles from the jetliner’s last reported position.

The head of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation, Lassina Zerbo, said he had asked the organisation’s experts to see if their “infrasound” sensors detected an explosion on the missing plane.


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