The probe into the disappearance of Flight 370 took another twist today as Malaysian authorities said one of the two people who boarded the plane with stolen passports was an Iranian who had no links to terror groups.
Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, got on board using an Austrian passport and aimed to migrate to Germany, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said in Kuala Lumpur today. Normal procedures were followed by authorities in granting a visa when he entered Malaysia, Khalid said.
“We have been checking his background, we have also checked him, with other police organizations, on his profile, and we believe that he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group,” Khalid said. Another person, who boarded using a stolen Italian passport, is being investigated.
The findings come after reports that two passengers on the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. flight used stolen passports fueled speculation the plane had disappeared because of terrorism. The jet went missing March 8 on a flight to Beijing and investigators have broadened their search to the western part of the country and land areas, after scouring the sea near Vietnam yielded no clues.
The search has been expanded beyond the flight path to the Malacca Strait, the airline said in a statement today. The authorities are also looking at the possibility of an attempt by Flight 370 to turn back to Subang, near Kuala Lumpur.
At least nine countries are trying to locate the jet, which vanished with 239 people aboard. The search originally focused on the Gulf of Thailand, between Malaysia and Vietnam, then was broadened to the west as well as eastward to the South China Sea.
“It’s becoming increasingly mysterious as the days go by,” said Shukor Yusof, an analyst at Standard & Poor’s in Singapore. “Now we’re into the fourth day and we still haven’t gotten anything. That’s why it makes this deeply, deeply baffling.”
With today’s technology, it’s unusual for a plane to vanish without a distress call. When they do disappear suddenly, it’s typically because of an event such as a massive engine failure or explosion. Yet that would create widely scattered debris, and search teams haven’t been able to recover any remnants. That the plane was a Boeing Co. 777, one of the most reliable jets in the air, only adds to the puzzle.
Potential leads haven’t panned out. Vietnamese vessels failed to discover any objects after overnight search in the area where a Hong Kong plane spotted debris.
Vietnamese authorities earlier reported sighting what appeared to be a life raft and recovered the object to find it was a moss-covered cable. An object that officials suspected was a window or door fragment couldn’t be located again. Malaysia investigators tested samples from an oil slick once seen as a crash marker and instead found marine fuel.
“It’s disturbing the aircraft hasn’t been found,” said Louis Sorrentino, Jupiter, Florida-based managing officer of ICF International’s aviation safety, security and regulatory compliance practice. “The 777 is a huge aircraft and debris should be visible.”
The Gulf of Thailand, where most of the search was conducted earlier, is only 269 feet deep, and therefore a wreckage plume would be visible, Sorrentino said. “It begs the question that maybe the aircraft dived straight down and embedded in the seabed.”
The aircraft, which disappeared without providing any distress signal, may have made an “air turn-back,” Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had said earlier. That means the plane may have deviated from its planned route, said Malaysian Air Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya. The pilots never signaled trauma or danger before losing radio contact between Malaysia and Vietnam.
The last known position of MH370 before it disappeared off the radar was 065515 North (longitude) and 1033443 East (latitude).
The search for Flight 370 has left authorities confounded as to how a jet with one of the industry’s best safety records could vanish without a trace, even after days of patrols by surface vessels, planes and helicopters.
“This was a relatively long flight going over large areas of water,” said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So there’s a reasonably large area that has to be searched to find something. I’m convinced something will turn up in the next few days.”
Closed-circuit television footage of two travelers with stolen passports gave investigators another set of clues to examine. The Royal Thai Police is probing the thefts of the two passports, which occurred in Phuket in 2012 and last year, spokesman Piya Uthayo said in Bangkok.
Tickets purchased with the pilfered passports on the flight, which belonged to Luigi Maraldi of Italy and Christian Kozel of Austria, had consecutive numbers, according to the Chinese e-ticket verification system Travelsky.
Men using the passports purchased the tickets on March 6 from Six Star Travel Co. in Pattaya, Thailand, city police Commander Supachai Phuykaeokam said by phone. The person with Maraldi’s documents had a final destination of Copenhagen, while Frankfurt was listed as the last stop for the person posing as Kozel, the commander said.
An officer at Six Star Travel declined to comment. The Financial Times cited a travel agent as saying she was asked to arrange the trips for the two men by an Iranian contact. Neither Maraldi nor Kozel was on the Malaysian aircraft, their governments said.
Evidence that typically might be spotted after a terrorist incident is lacking so far, said two U.S. officials. At the same time, the absence of clues isn’t enough to rule out such an attack, said the officials, who asked not to be identified while discussing intelligence activities.
The early warning system for the North American Air Defense Command detected no anomalies related to Flight 370, said one of the officials. Norad’s infrared and visual imagery can pick up heat sources such as explosions and missile launches, the official said.
There were no issues on the health of the aircraft, which was delivered to Malaysian Air in 2002 and has since recorded 53,465.21 hours of flying, the carrier said in the statement.
U.S. intelligence agencies also haven’t turned up a burst of chatter online or on the airwaves of the type that often follows an attack, the second official said.
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. Also aboard were three U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Navy sent two destroyers and aircraft into the region, according to the Defense Department.
Flight 370 departed Kuala Lumpur 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, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. said. Controllers lost radar contact about an hour into the flight as the plane neared Vietnamese airspace. .
Finding the jet’s flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders, the units known collectively as an aircraft’s black box, would help investigators unravel what happened in the final moments of Flight 370.
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