Sunday, March 09, 2014

Mystery Deepens Over Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight: Two Passengers Appear to Have Boarded Using Stolen Passports

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200, 9M-MRO, Flight MH-370: Accident occurred March 08, 2014 -  Gulf of Thailand 

NTSB positioning team to offer assistance in investigation of Malaysia Airlines 777 event:  

The Wall Street Journal 
By Jason Ng, Gaurav Raghuvanshi and Jake Maxwell Watts

Updated March 9, 2014 8:27 a.m. ET

KUALA LUMPUR—The mystery over what happened to a missing Malaysian airliner deepened Sunday as rescue teams continued their search for the jet, and military radar indicated the flight might have turned back toward Kuala Lumpur before vanishing.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew, suddenly disappeared just under an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in the early hours Saturday. The disappearance triggered a search and rescue operation across portions of the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, involving the armed forces of several nations, including the United States, Malaysia, Vietnam and China.

Vietnam's search and rescue officials said Sunday that they were investigating a report about a suspected piece of debris seen floating in waters where the flight was thought to have disappeared.

The yellow object was spotted by a Singaporean aircraft about 100 kilometers south-southwest of Vietnam's Tho Chu island about 2:30 p.m. local time, the officials said, without giving a description of the object.

Three Vietnamese vessels have been dispatched to the location, and were expected to arrive Sunday evening local time.

Singapore's defense ministry declined to comment on the reported discovery. The city-state has deployed two C-130 military airlifters and three naval vessels to join the search for missing jet, which was carrying 239 people when it vanished early Saturday en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

The investigation into the fate of the plane has been complicated further by revelations that two passengers appeared to have boarded the plane with stolen passports, prompting airline executives and aviation officials to say that foul play can't be ruled out.

Malaysia's police chief, Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar, told reporters in Terengganu on the country's South China Sea coast that while police investigators "don't dismiss the possibility" of terrorism, they weren't considering it the most likely cause for the disappearance of MH370.

Rescuers are looking at the possibility that the plane could have attempted to turn back to Kuala Lumpur, "which could mean that the aircraft could be elsewhere," acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, who also serves as Malaysia's defense minister, said at a press briefing.

Military radar readings indicate the plane may have reversed course, the country's air force chief said. Gen. Rodzali Duad said the military is still studying the radar data, and added that it is corroborated by some civilian radar data.

The flight included passengers from more than a dozen nationalities, with just over half of them Chinese. A Malaysian aviation official said at the briefing that the aviation regulator is investigating video recordings of two passengers carrying stolen passports, from check-in to departure. Two people—an Austrian and an Italian—listed as being on the missing jet weren't on the flight. Their passports had been stolen in Thailand.

A 30-year-old Austrian whose name was on the passenger list for the flight wasn't on board. His passport was stolen in Thailand in 2012, an Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Another passenger on the list, Luigi Maraldi, an Italian citizen, wasn't on the plane either, Italy's Foreign Ministry said Saturday. Mr. Maraldi's passport was stolen in Thailand a year and a half ago, his father said.

An Austrian and Italian whose names were on the passenger list of flight MH370 but not on the flight both lost their passports in Thailand. The WSJ's Deborah Kan speaks to security consultant Steve Vickers about the thriving trade of selling fake identification in Thailand.

A European security official said it wasn't uncommon for passengers to board flights using stolen passports. In addition, Beijing has emerged as a bustling transit hub in recent years, providing connecting flights to Europe and elsewhere from other parts of Asia, buoyed in part by a 72-hour visa-on-arrival program.

A massive, multinational search and rescue operation to locate flight MH370, meanwhile, continues in the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam.

Until the plane is located, there is little prospect of figuring out what really caused it to vanish. And the longer the search takes, the less likely it is to find any survivors.

At a news conference in Beijing Sunday afternoon, a member of the airline's crisis-management team, said the airline has told family members of passengers to "expect the worst." Ignatius Ong said Malaysia Airlines would make travel arrangements for Chinese family members who wished to fly to Kuala Lumpur to await more news.

Meanwhile, many relatives in Beijing were overcome with grief as they awaited news. Sounds of weeping poured out of rooms of the Metropark Lido Hotel, about 20 minutes from Beijing Capital International Airport where the airline had set up a help center for friends and relatives of the passengers. Some of the family members crouched in the stairwells, their cries echoing into the hallways.

Zhang Zhiliang, from Tianjin, and his family huddled in a stairwell in the hotel, crying, "I don't understand." His cousin, 26 and also from Tianjin, was on the flight.

Late Saturday, Vietnam reported that one of its search aircraft had spotted two oil slicks some 140 kilometers, or 87 miles, from Vietnam's coast. The slicks could be a sign that the missing plane had crashed, authorities in Hanoi said.

"I can confirm that there was an oil slick, no debris," Mr. Hishamuddin said, adding that Vietnamese authorities are on site to verify whether there is any jet fuel on the sea surface.

A team of American aviation accident investigators, led by National Transportation Safety Board experts, is en route to Asia to provide assistance regarding the missing jetliner.

China's navy said Sunday that it had sent two warships to help with the search. Beijing had already sent at least one coast guard vessel and two search and rescue ships toward the area, according to state media.

"Once the aircraft location is identified," international accident rules will determine what country will formally lead the probe, the safety board said. The board's announcement is the latest sign of the intense international interest in trying to quickly determine what caused the Boeing 777 to disappear from the sky in good weather.

 The team, including technical advisers from Boeing Co. and the Federal Aviation Administration, left the U.S. Saturday and would "be positioned to offer U.S. assistance," the board said. The NTSB is unlikely to head up what is bound to be a complex and extensive probe, but the board's expertise is likely to play a big role in establishing the chain of events.

The NTSB's decision, according to air-safety officials, indicates that at least at this point, U.S. aviation regulators and safety watchdogs are treating the plane's disappearance and presumed crash as an accident rather than an act of terrorism.

The officials stressed that could change as more details surface. For now, though, it is the NTSB investigators, rather than law-enforcement or antiterrorism officials, who are leading Washington's public response.

—Vu Trong Khanh, Chuin-Wei Yap, Laurie Burkitt and Celine Fernandez contributed to this article. 


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