Police Search for 'Mr. Ali,' Iranian Who Bought Tickets for Missing Flight

Monday, 10 Mar 2014 04:46 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Authorities questioned travel agents Monday at a beach resort in Thailand about two men who boarded the vanished Malaysia Airlines plane with stolen passports, part of a growing international investigation into what they were doing on the flight.

Tickets possibly used by passengers linked to the passports were bought by an Iranian man, CNN reported on Monday.

Citing police officials in Thailand, the tickets were booked by phone by Kazem Ali, an Iranian man, who said they were for friends who wanted to return to Europe. The tickets were bought with cash, CNN reports.

Police Lt. Col. Ratchthapong Tia-sood said the travel agency was contacted by an Iranian man known only as "Mr. Ali" to book the tickets for the two men.

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Officials have circulated photos of the two men to intelligence agencies around the world.
NBC News also reported that airport security got thumbprints of two men when they boarded Flight 370 on Saturday. The prints are being sent to the FBI for analysis.

Nearly three days after the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, no debris has been seen in Southeast Asian waters.

Five passengers who checked in for Flight MH370 didn't board the plane, and their luggage was removed from it, Malaysian authorities said. Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this also was being investigated, but he didn't say whether this was suspicious.

The search effort, involving at least 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries, was being widened to a 100-nautical-mile radius from the point where the plane vanished from radar screens between Malaysia and Vietnam early Saturday with no distress signal.

Two of the passengers were traveling on passports stolen in Thailand and had onward tickets to Europe, but it's not known whether the two men had anything to do with the plane's disappearance. Criminals and illegal immigrants regularly travel on fake or stolen documents.

The men who traveled with the stolen passports were "not Asian-looking men," authorities examining security footage from the airport said.

Interpol is investigating whether more suspicious passports were used to board the missing flight, reports Reuters,  including the two European documents. According to a passenger list for flight MH370, which was heading for Beijing and disappeared after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur Saturday, men with passports belonging to Austrian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi boarded the plane.

However, on Sunday, authorities confirmed neither Kozel nor Maraldi were on the plane, and that their passports had been stolen in Thailand within the last two years.

"Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in INTERPOL's databases," Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said in a statement Sunday.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told CNN's "Amanpour" show Monday that police are investigating the stolen passports, but she does not know the nationality of the people who used them.

"We gave orders for the police to investigate the passport users," said Shinawatra. "Because this is very important to Thailand, to give full cooperation to Interpol in the investigation about the passport users. We are now following this."

Electronic booking records show that one-way tickets with those names were issued Thursday from a travel agency in the beach resort of Pattaya in eastern Thailand. Thai police Col. Supachai Phuykaeokam said those reservations were placed with the agency by a second travel agency in Pattaya, Grand Horizon.

Thai police and Interpol officers questioned the owners. Officials at Grand Horizon refused to talk to The Associated Press.

"We have to look further into this Mr. Ali's identity because it's almost a tradition to use an alias when doing business around here," Lt. Col. Tia-sood said.

The travel agency's owner, Benjaporn Krutnait, told The Financial Times she believed Mr. Ali was not connected to terrorism because he had asked for the cheapest tickets to Europe and did not specify the Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing flight.

Officials are cautioning that it is too early to come to conclusions about the passports and a possible link to terrorism, as illegal immigration may be behind the use of the stolen documents.

Southeast Asia is known to host a booming market for stolen passports, and illegal immigrants often use them to try to enter other countries, sources told CNN.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Civil Aviation Department, said in a briefing on Monday that officials are "looking at every angle, every aspect," when reporters asked him if the plane had been hijacked. "We are looking at every inch of the sea."


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