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Malaysian plane mystery: Stolen passports, 5 passengers who checked in but did not board, no sign of aircraft

Published: Monday, March 10 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

A helicopter prepares to land onboard the China Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) ship Haixun-31 during a brief stop in Sanya in southern China's Hainan province Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship is expected to join an ongoing search for the missing Malaysian Airlines' passenger plane that vanished on Saturday. (Associated Press) A helicopter prepares to land onboard the China Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) ship Haixun-31 during a brief stop in Sanya in southern China's Hainan province Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship is expected to join an ongoing search for the missing Malaysian Airlines' passenger plane that vanished on Saturday. (Associated Press)

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.

People prepare to release a sky lantern during a candlelight vigil for passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, March 10, 2014. The search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which has involved 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries covering a 50-nautical mile radius from the point the plane vanished from radar screens between Malaysia and Vietnam continues after its disappearance since Saturday.   (Lai Seng Sin, Associated Press) People prepare to release a sky lantern during a candlelight vigil for passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, March 10, 2014. The search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which has involved 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries covering a 50-nautical mile radius from the point the plane vanished from radar screens between Malaysia and Vietnam continues after its disappearance since Saturday. (Lai Seng Sin, Associated Press)

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 Department of Civil Aviation's Director General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman briefs reporters on search and recovery efforts within existing and new areas for missing Malaysia Airlines plane during a press conference, Monday, March 10, 2014 in Sepang, Malaysia. The search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 which has involved 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries covering a 50-nautical mile radius from the point the plane vanished from radar screens between Malaysia and Vietnam continues after its disappearance since Saturday. Experts say possible causes of the apparent crash include an explosion, catastrophic engine failure, terrorist attack, extreme turbulence, or pilot error or even suicide.  (Daniel Chan, Associated Press) Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation's Director General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman briefs reporters on search and recovery efforts within existing and new areas for missing Malaysia Airlines plane during a press conference, Monday, March 10, 2014 in Sepang, Malaysia. The search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 which has involved 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries covering a 50-nautical mile radius from the point the plane vanished from radar screens between Malaysia and Vietnam continues after its disappearance since Saturday. Experts say possible causes of the apparent crash include an explosion, catastrophic engine failure, terrorist attack, extreme turbulence, or pilot error or even suicide. (Daniel Chan, Associated Press)

Thai police and Interpol officers questioned the owners. Officials at Grand Horizon refused to talk to The Associated Press.

Police Lt. Col. Ratchthapong Tia-sood said the travel agency was contacted by an Iranian man known only as "Mr. Ali" to book the tickets for the two men.

"We have to look further into this Mr. Ali's identity because it's almost a tradition to use an alias when doing business around here," he said.

The travel agency's owner, Benjaporn Krutnait, told The Financial Times she believed Mr. Ali was not connected to terrorism because he had asked for cheapest tickets to Europe and did not specify the Kuala Lumpur to Beijing flight.

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.

An Indonesian Navy crew member scans the water bordering Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand during a search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 near the Malacca straits on Monday, March 10, 2014. Dozens of ships and aircraft have failed to find any piece of the missing Boeing 777 jet that vanished more than two days ago above waters south of Vietnam as investigators pursued An Indonesian Navy crew member scans the water bordering Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand during a search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 near the Malacca straits on Monday, March 10, 2014. Dozens of ships and aircraft have failed to find any piece of the missing Boeing 777 jet that vanished more than two days ago above waters south of Vietnam as investigators pursued "every angle" to explain its disappearance, including hijacking, Malaysia's civil aviation chief said Monday. (Binsar Bakkara, Associated Press)

Asked by a reporter what they looked like, he said: "Do you know of a footballer by the name of (Mario) Balotelli? He is an Italian. Do you know how he looks like?" A reporter then asked, "Is he black?" and the aviation chief replied, "Yes."

Possible causes of the apparent crash include an explosion, catastrophic engine failure, terrorist attack, extreme turbulence, pilot error or even suicide, according to experts, many of whom cautioned against speculation because so little is known.

Malaysia's air force chief, Rodzali Daud, has said radar indicated that before it disappeared, the plane may have turned back, but there were no further details on which direction it went or how far it veered off course.

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.

A Chinese relative of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, center, cries as she is escorted by a woman while leaving a hotel room for relatives or friends of passengers aboard the missing airplane, in Beijing, China Sunday, March 9, 2014.  Planes and ships from across Asia resumed the hunt Sunday for the Malaysian jetliner missing with 239 people on board for more than 24 hours, while Malaysian aviation authorities investigated how two passengers were apparently able to get on the aircraft using stolen passports.  (Andy Wong, Associated Press) A Chinese relative of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, center, cries as she is escorted by a woman while leaving a hotel room for relatives or friends of passengers aboard the missing airplane, in Beijing, China Sunday, March 9, 2014. Planes and ships from across Asia resumed the hunt Sunday for the Malaysian jetliner missing with 239 people on board for more than 24 hours, while Malaysian aviation authorities investigated how two passengers were apparently able to get on the aircraft using stolen passports. (Andy Wong, Associated Press)

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

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.

"We accept God's will," Selamat said. "Whether he is found alive or dead, we surrender to Allah."

Gomez reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Louise Watt in Beijing, Joan Lowy in Washington and Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.

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