Malaysian authorities have given US investigators biometric details on two passengers who used stolen passports to travel on a Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on Saturday, reports the Financial Times Monday.
Authorities are hoping to identify the two men who are now at the center of the mystery over what happened to flight MH370, which disappeared over the South China Sea with 239 passengers and crew aboard.
Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister and acting transport minister, said closed circuit TV pictures of the two were also handed to US officials in Kuala Lumpur.
The Thai travel agent who booked the tickets for the men told the Financial Times on Monday that she had been asked to arrange the travel by an Iranian contact.
The two men were travelling on flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Italian and Austrian passports that were later confirmed to have been lost or stolen. They were then scheduled to fly together to Amsterdam, before catching separate connecting flights to Copenhagen and Frankfurt.
While their use of stolen passports has raised fears of terrorist involvement, “travel documents are stolen frequently in the region and used for illegal immigration or criminal activities such as drug smuggling,” noted the Financial Times in its exclusive coverage.
Benjaporn Krutnait, owner of the agency Grand Horizon Travel in Pattaya, Thailand, said the Iranian, a long-term business contact who she knew only as “Mr Ali”, first asked her to book cheap tickets to Europe for the two men on March 1. Benjaporn initially reserved one of the men on a Qatar Airways flight and the other on Etihad. The tickets expired when Benjaporn did not hear back from Ali. When he contacted her again on Thursday, she rebooked the men on the Malaysia Airlines flight through Beijing because it was the cheapest available.
A friend of Ali paid Benjaporn cash for the tickets, she said, adding that it was quite common for people to book tickets in Pattaya through middle men such as Mr Ali, who then take a commission. She added that she had known Ali for about three years, during which time he spent a lot of time in Pattaya and booked travel for himself or his contacts at least once a month on average. There is no evidence that Ali knew the two men were travelling on stolen passports.
Benjaporn said she did not believe Mr Ali was linked to terrorism, particularly as he had not specified booking the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight but had instead asked for the cheapest route to Europe.
“We have not found anything that appears to be objects from the aircraft let alone the aircraft,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, said on Monday in Kuala Lumpur. “We will be intensifying our efforts to locate the aircraft.”
Regarding the two men who used false passports, he said that after studying closed circuit TV footage at the airport, “it is confirmed that they are not Asian-looking men”. He declined to give details of their appearances, but said: “Do you know a footballer by the name of Balotelli?”, an apparent reference to Mario Balotelli, an Italian born to Ghanaian parents.