Malaysia expanded the search area for a missing jetliner, dispatching ships to check debris near Hong Kong after investigators from nine countries struggled to solve the mystery of the plane’s disappearance.
Today’s decision pushes the hunt for Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS)’s Flight 370 into the South China Sea, east of its intended route, after an earlier focus on the Gulf of Thailand. An oil slick in the gulf that was once speculated to be from the Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200 turned out to have come from a boat.
“We need hard evidence, we need concrete evidence — we need parts of the aircraft for us to analyze,” said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation.
Australia and the U.S. are among those helping in the search for the twin-aisle jet, which was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur with 239 people when it vanished from radar screens on March 8. Authorities said today they had identified one of the two men who used stolen passports to get on board, spurring speculation that terrorism may be involved.
“We are trying to ascertain if the two holders of false passport entered Malaysia, legally or illegally,” Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said in a mobile-phone text message.
Authorities have closed-circuit television footage of those two travelers. Austria and Italy said the passports were stolen from their nationals. The Royal Thai Police is probing the two thefts, which occurred in Phuket in 2012 and last year, spokesman Piya Uthayo said in Bangkok today.
Before takeoff from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Airline removed the baggage of five passengers who didn’t board after checking in, Azharuddin said. “There are issues about the passengers that did not fly on the aircraft,” he said without elaborating.
Malaysian Airline said yesterday that it feared the worst. Chinese travelers accounted for the largest group aboard Flight 370, with 153 people, and that country’s government prodded the carrier to hasten the inquiry.
“We are constantly urging and asking the Malaysian side to step up search and rescue,” said Qin Gang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Two days after the incident, we still hope the Malaysian side will fully understand the mood of the Chinese family members and they will try their best to speed up investigation.”
Also aboard were three U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. State Department.
The most recent crash of similar magnitude was in Feb. 19, 2003, when an Iranian Revolutionary Guard plane crashed in the Indian Ocean, killing 275 people, according to the Aviation Safety Network. Shares of Malaysian Air fell 4 percent to 24 sen in Kuala Lumpur.
Allianz SE, Europe’s biggest insurer, is Malaysian Airline’s liability provider, according to an e-mailed statement.
Flight 370 departed the Malaysian capital at about 12:41 a.m. local time March 8 and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Security screening was performed as usual at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. (MAHB) said. Controllers lost radar contact about an hour into the flight as the plane neared Vietnamese airspace.
The aircraft, which disappeared without providing any distress signal, may have made an “air turn-back,” said Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. That means the plane may have deviated from its planned route, said Malaysian Air Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.
A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was heading to Malaysia to be in place once any wreckage is located. The team was being joined by specialists from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, Kelly Nantel, an NTSB spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
There is no indication of terrorism at this point, said a U.S. official following the case, asking not to be identified because the investigation is still in its early stages. The U.S. is working with authorities in the region, the official said.
At the same time, the passport thefts focused heightened scrutiny on the identity and motives of the travelers using the stolen documents.
The use of the pilfered passports on the flight, which belonged to Luigi Maraldi of Italy and Christian Kozel of Austria, had consecutive ticket numbers, according to the Chinese e-ticket verification system Travelsky. Both tickets were issued on March 6, according to the website of China Southern Airlines (1055) Co., which has an agreement with Malaysian Airline to book seats on the flight.
Neither Maraldi nor Kozel was on the Malaysian aircraft, their governments said.
While Muslim-majority Malaysia hasn’t seen any recent major terrorist attacks on home soil, it has been used as a transit and planning hub, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department. China has occasionally been the target of what it calls terrorist attacks by Uighurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic group from the nation’s northwest Xinjiang region.
If terrorism was involved, the flight’s disappearance over water may not be a coincidence as that helps obscure evidence, said John Magaw, a consultant who formerly was administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and director of the U.S. Secret Service.
U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said he’s seen no indication the U.S. had picked up evidence of a mid-air explosion of the plane. The lack of such evidence “is certainly adding to the mystery,” the Michigan Republican said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program.
The presence of two passengers with stolen passports signals possible terrorism, said Magaw, citing intelligence warnings that multiple attackers might seek to elude detection by smuggling different parts of bombs onto planes and then assembling the pieces in restrooms.
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