Fears of terrorism grow as search for plane continues
The FBI, Interpol and China's ministry of public security were all investigating the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 last night, as fears grew that it had been the victim of a terrorist attack.
As night fell on the second day since the Boeing 777's disappearance 35,000ft above the Gulf of Thailand, a search-and-rescue operation was continuing for the plane and its 239 passengers.
Deepening the sense of mystery surrounding the fate of the plane, Malaysia's air force chief said "the military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back" – while others seized upon a 2012 report that showed a 3ft section of its wing had been damaged and later repaired after a "minor collision".
In what could be the first potential breakthrough, a Vietnamese search-and-rescue plane said it had spotted two pieces of debris about 50 miles south-west of Tho Chu Island.
One Malaysian official, baffled by the lack of evidence 48 hours after the accident, said it "appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet".
But aviation experts said it was impossible to know whether the plane disintegrated until wreckage was found, which could take days. More ominous questions emerged about who was on board the Beijing-bound flight after the Malaysian authorities said as many as four passengers may have used fake or stolen passports. Interpol said it was "examining additional suspect passports" and the FBI was helping Malaysian investigators in identifying the four.
Hishamuddin Hussein, the Malaysian transport minister, said the authorities "do not want to jump the gun", but had "informed the counter-terrorism units of all relevant countries".
Investigators are also reviewing the CCTV footage of the passengers at Kuala Lumpur airport.
There is a brisk trade in stolen passports in South East Asia and Interpol currently has 39 million stolen or lost passports in its database – equivalent to the population of Poland.
"Any flight of that size in Asia would be carrying a couple of people with false passports," said Clive Williams, a counter-terrorism expert at Macquarie university in Australia.
"When you think about the number of passports that have been stolen or gone missing around the world, it could be related, but it is probably not."
However, others said if it was a coincidence, it was a remarkable one.
"What are the chances that one person boards a Malaysia Airlines plane on a stolen Caucasian passport?" asked one aviation expert who asked not to be named.
"Maybe it is one in a thousand. Two? One in a million," he added.
Initially, Malaysia Airlines had played down the use of two stolen passports, saying that any passengers headed to Beijing would have had to apply for a Chinese visa.
However, reporters confirmed with China Southern, the code-share airline that made the bookings for the men travelling under the names "Luigi Maraldi" and "Christian Kozel", that both were merely transiting in Beijing and did not require a visa.
Two separate ticketing agents at the airline confirmed that the men were booked to fly onwards from Beijing at 11.55am on March 8 to Amsterdam on a KLM flight in economy.
The real Luigi Maraldi appeared at a police station in the Thai town of Phuket to clarify that he had lost his passport while renting a motorcycle in the area last year. He said the woman in the shop had told him she had given his passport to another Italian man.
Hugh Dunleavy, an executive vice-president at Malaysia Airlines, said it was not the carrier's responsibility to validate a passport.
"We just need to make sure that if we see a passport, it doesn't look like it has been forged and it has a legitimate visa. If it all looks legitimate and everything else about the customer is legitimate we will load them on the plane," he said.
Another airline spokesman added that all the photographs had matched the passports of the passengers.
But the Malaysian authorities have promised to tighten security at Kuala Lumpur after criticism that it had grown lax in recent years. (© Daily Telegraph, London)