Malaysia Airlines plane crash: terror experts home in on fake passports as debris found

Malcolm Moore, Harriet Alexander – Telegraph.co.uk March 9, 2014

Malaysian Airlines Boing 777, suspicions grow that it may have 'disintegrated' in mid air. Click to enlarge

The FBI, Interpol and China’s Ministry of Public Security are all investigating the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, as fears grew that it had been the victim of a terror attack.

As night fell on the second day since the Boeing 777’s disappearance, 35,000ft above the Gulf of Thailand, a huge search and rescue operation had found no trace of the plane or 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 portion of its wing, approximately three feet long, had been damaged and subsequently repaired, following a “minor collision”.

It what could be the first potential breakthrough so far, a Vietnamese search-and-rescue plane said it had spotted two pieces of debris around 50 miles south-west of Tho Chu Island.

The fragments were believed to be a part of the inner door and a piece of the missing airline’s tail, Vietnam’s ministry of information and communication said on its website.

And 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” – something rubbished by aviation experts who said it was impossible to know whether the plane disintegrated until wreckage was found, and that that could take days.

But more ominous questions emerged about who was on board 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 assisting Malaysian investigators in probing the identities of the four.

Hishamuddin Hussein, the Malaysian Transport minister, said that while the authorities “do not want to jump the gun”, they have “informed the counter-terrorism units of all relevant countries”.

Investigators are also reviewing the close-circuit television 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 recorded 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.

Luigi Maraldi, who had his passport stolen in Thailand last year shows, his current passport next to Thai police officers. Click to enlarge

However, the Telegraph confirmed with China Southern, the code-share airline which 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 spokesman for the airline 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.

Meanwhile, the fate of flight MH370 remains a mystery. The jet was only eleven years old, had been recently serviced and was flying in clear weather. There is no sign so far of any debris and nor has any terrorist organisation yet claimed responsibility.

Its pilot, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was highly experienced and described by friends as an “aviation tech geek¡” who loved his job so much he even spent his days off tinkering with a flight simulator he had set up at home.

“We used to tease him. We would ask him, why are you bringing your work home?” said a pilot who knew Capt Zaharie for 20 years. “He knew everything about the Boeing 777. Something significant would have had to happen for Zaharie and the plane to go missing. It would have to be total electrical failure.”

Friends who saw him the day before the flight said he had been in a “jovial” mood, according to the New Straits Times, a Malaysian newspaper.

An unnamed American government official told the New York Times that the Pentagon had reviewed its surveillance system that looks for flashes around the world, and saw no evidence of an explosion.

And another Boeing 777 pilot, who was flying 30 minutes ahead of MH370 en route to Narita airport in Tokyo, told the New Sunday Times in Malaysia that he had made contact with the plane shortly before it vanished.

“We managed to establish contact with MH370 just after 1.30am and asked them if they have transferred into Vietnamese airspace,” said the captain, who asked not to be named.

“There were a lot of interference, static, but I heard mumbling from the other end. If the plane was in trouble, we would have heard the pilot making the Mayday distress call,” he said.

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