The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

March 11, 2014

Stolen passports probed in Malaysian plane mystery

PATTAYA, Thailand — 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.

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 (115-mile, 185-kilometer) radius from the point 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 migrants regularly travel on fake or stolen documents.

Hishammuddin said biometric information and CCTV footage of the men has been shared with Chinese and U.S. intelligence agencies, which were helping with the investigation. Almost two-thirds of the passengers on the flight were from China.

The stolen passports, one belonging to Christian Kozel of Austria and the other to Luigi Maraldi of Italy, were entered into Interpol’s database after they were taken in Thailand in 2012 and 2013, the police organization said.

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.

Malaysia’s police chief was quoted by local media as saying that one of the two men had been identified — something that could speed up the investigation.

Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman declined to confirm this, but said they were of “non-Asian” appearance, adding that authorities were looking at the possibility the men were connected to a stolen passport syndicate.

On Sunday, a Vietnamese plane spotted a rectangular object that was thought to be one of the plane’s doors, but ships could not locate it. On Monday, a Singaporean search plane spotted a yellow object 140 kilometers (87 miles) southwest of Tho Chu island, but it turned out to be sea trash.

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