News Asia-Pacific

Sunday 21 September 2014

Disappearing plane is an 'unprecedented mystery'

Families of missing angry at lack of search progress

Andrew Buncombe

Published 11/03/2014 | 02:30

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A family member of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane wipes her tears at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Monday, March 10, 2014. Vietnamese aircraft spotted what they suspected was one of the doors of the missing Boeing 777 on Sunday, while questions emerged about how two passengers managed to board the ill-fated aircraft using stolen passports. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)
A family member of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane wipes her tears at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia

OFFICIALS confronting the "unprecedented mystery" of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 are to extend the area of their search.

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Yesterday police questioned travel agents at a beach resort in Thailand about two men who boarded the vanished jet 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.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the head of Malaysia's Civil Aviation Authority, said both an oil slick and a yellow object initially thought to be a life raft, had proved to have no link to the aircraft.

"Unfortunately, we have not found anything that appears to be objects from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft," he said. "As far as we are concerned, we have to find the aircraft. We have to find a piece of the aircraft if possible."

STOLEN

Mr Rahman did confirm that investigators poring over CCTV footage of two passengers who boarded the flight using stolen European passports had concluded they were "not Asian-looking men". Earlier, another official had said one of the men was not Malaysian.

When asked to give a rough description of the passengers, he referred to Mario Balotelli, the black Italian footballer who previously played for Manchester City and who is currently a member of the Milan team.

When the name was put to Mr Rahman, he replied: "Balotelli, yes".

On Sunday, officials appeared to be focusing their attention on up to four passengers who had boarded the Beijing-bound flight, including the passengers using stolen Austrian and Italian passports.

Mr Rahman said an examination of the CCTV showed the two men had fully complied with security protocols and that their hand baggage had been checked.

He said investigations were continuing with the help of the intelligence agencies of other countries. "There is the possibility of a stolen passport syndicate," he said.

It appears the tickets for the passengers who travelled on stolen passports were purchased from a travel agent in Pattaya, apparently by an Iranian middleman.

Mr Rahman said the search area would be extended by a 100km radius. Aircraft and ships from 10 countries are currently scouring the seas around Malaysia and south of Vietnam for a trace of the Boeing 777, which went missing with 227 passengers and 12 crew.

The final minutes before the aircraft's disappearance remain a mystery. The aircraft lost contact with ground controllers somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam.

Families of those missing have suffered an agonising wait.

VANISHING

A number of relatives of the passengers claimed yesterday that they had called mobile phones of their missing loved ones and they had rang out, according to Chinese media.

"If I could get through, the police could locate the position, and there's a chance he could still be alive," Bian Liangwei, the sister of one of the passengers, told the local press. A number of relatives passed on the phone numbers to authorities, but a Malaysian Airlines spokesman later said the company had tried one of the numbers given to them, but had failed to get through.

Malaysian military officials said on Sunday that the aircraft may have turned back from its scheduled route shortly before vanishing from radar screens.

With so little progress being made, Malaysia has been criticised for the pace at which it has been working. A total of 153 passengers on the aircraft were Chinese and China yesterday accused Malaysia of failing to provide sufficient information.

Among the passengers was Philip Wood (51) from Texas. "I know in my heart that Philip's with God," his mother Sandra Wood was quoted as saying.

On Sunday, a Vietnamese plane spotted a rectangular object 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 but it turned out to be sea trash.

Malaysian maritime officials found oil slicks in the South China Sea, but lab tests found that samples of it were not from an aircraft.

Selamat Omar, a Malaysian whose 29-year-old son Mohamad Khairul Amri Selamat was a passenger on the flight, told of getting a call from the airline saying the plane was missing. (© Independent News Service)

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