Last updated: March 10, 2014 1:40 pm

US joins Malaysia in hunt for mystery air passengers

Senior management spokesman for Malaysia Airlines, Ignatius Ong (R), speaks during a press conference in Beijing, China, 08 March 2014. Search and rescue teams from Malaysia and Vietnam on 08 March launched efforts in the South China Sea to locate a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane with 239 people on board that went missing en route to Beijing. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 with 239 people on board went missing early 08 March 2014 while on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Airline officials said.©EPA

Senior management spokesman for Malaysia Airlines, Ignatius Ong (right), speaks during a press conference in Beijing, China, on March 8

Malaysian authorities have given US investigators biometric details on two passengers who used stolen passports to travel on a Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on Saturday.

It is hoped the move could accelerate identification of the two men who are now at the centre of the international mystery over what happened to flight MH370, which disappeared over the South China Sea with 239 passengers and crew aboard.

Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defence minister and acting transport minister, said closed circuit TV pictures of the two were also handed to US officials in Kuala Lumpur.

The Thai travel agent who booked the tickets for the men told the Financial Times on Monday that she had been asked to arrange the travel by an Iranian contact.

The two men were travelling on flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Italian and Austrian passports that were later confirmed to have been lost or stolen. They were then scheduled to fly together to Amsterdam, before catching separate connecting flights to Copenhagen and Frankfurt.

While their use of stolen passports has raised fears of terrorist involvement, travel documents are stolen frequently in the region and used for illegal immigration or criminal activities such as drug smuggling.

Benjaporn Krutnait, owner of the agency Grand Horizon Travel in Pattaya, Thailand, said the Iranian, a long-term business contact who she knew only as “Mr Ali”, first asked her to book cheap tickets to Europe for the two men on March 1. Ms Benjaporn initially reserved one of the men on a Qatar Airways flight and the other on Etihad.

But the tickets expired when Ms Benjaporn did not hear back from Mr Ali. When he contacted her again on Thursday, she rebooked the men on the Malaysia Airlines flight through Beijing because it was the cheapest available. Ms Benjaporn booked the tickets through China Southern Airlines via a code share arrangement.

A friend of Mr Ali paid Ms Benjaporn cash for the tickets, she said, adding that it was quite common for people to book tickets in Pattaya through middle men such as Mr Ali, who then take a commission.

Mr Ali could not immediately be reached for comment on a Tehran mobile number provided by Ms Benjaporn. She added that she had known Mr Ali for about three years, during which time he spent a lot of time in Pattaya and booked travel for himself or his contacts at least once a month on average. There is no evidence that Mr Ali knew the two men were travelling on stolen passports.

Ms Benjaporn said she did not believe Mr Ali was linked to terrorism, particularly as he had not specified booking the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight but had instead asked for the cheapest route to Europe. Ms Benjaporn said she was speaking about the case because she was concerned over the speculation about a terrorist attack and wanted the facts to be known.

The details on how the pair arranged their travel came as the official in charge of the search for the missing aircraft declared its disappearance “an unprecedented missing aircraft mystery” and said tantalising leads reported at the weekend had evaporated.

“We have not found anything that appears to be objects from the aircraft let alone the aircraft,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, said on Monday in Kuala Lumpur. “We will be intensifying our efforts to locate the aircraft.”

Of the two men, he said that after studying closed circuit TV footage at the airport, “it is confirmed that they are not Asian-looking men”. He declined to give details of their appearances, but said: “Do you know a footballer by the name of Balotelli?”, an apparent reference to Mario Balotelli, an Italian born to Ghanaian parents.

Both individuals had “gone through the full protocol of [airport] security”, Mr Azharuddin said.

Mr Azharuddin said that all checked luggage on the flight had been properly screened by X-ray equipment, while bags belonging to five people who did not board the aircraft were removed before it took off. “The security at KLIA already complies with international standards,” he said.

He added that more than 30 aircraft and 40 ships from eight countries were now involved in the search, which initially focused on a 50-mile radius around the position where the plane disappeared.

In another development, Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency – or coastguard – said that tests on samples taken from an oil slick discovered at the weekend in the search area revealed that the liquid was not aviation fuel.

Mr Azharuddin said the overall search area would be significantly widened on Tuesday to include an expanse of sea west of peninsular Malaysia.

Investigators are also examining the possibility, first raised by Malaysia’s defence minister on Sunday, that the aircraft may have turned back towards Kuala Lumpur before disappearing.

Malaysian authorities will be meeting with specialists from the US Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. Australian and British aviation authorities have also offered help in the investigation.

Malaysia Airlines’ shares dropped 4 per cent on Monday, although at one stage they fell as much as 18 per cent in early trading.

Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

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