'One of two men who boarded doomed Air Malaysia flight on a stolen passport looked like Mario Balotelli': Authorities reveal key clue as they hunt Kazem Ali, mystery Iranian businessman who booked their tickets
- Search teams still unable to find trace of missing Malaysia Airlines plane
- Searches taking place in South China Sea where last contact was made
- U.S. led search meanwhile is also taking place near Andaman Sea
- Interpol investigating whether up to four passengers had stolen passports
- Men who used stolen passports not of Asian appearance, investigators say
- Five passengers also checked on to flight but did not board plane
- China has urged Malaysia to step up search as it also sends rescue teams
- Thai travel agent says Iranian booked tickets for stolen passport passengers
One of the two men who used stolen passports to board the missing Malaysian Airlines plane looked like Mario Balotelli, Malaysian officials have claimed.
Yet, hours later, a fresh report has emerged claiming that the pair were in fact Iranian nationals on a quest to flee their country's oppressive regime.
That seems to tie in with an earlier announcement by Thai officials that an Iranian businessman called Kazem Ali had booked the tickets for the two passengers.
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Chinese students stand by candles while praying for the passengers aboard the missing Boeing 777 at a school in Zhuji city. The disappearance may be down to a terrorist act
A group of Malaysian residents pose after lighting candles during a vigil for missing Malaysia Airlines passengers at the Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur
A Malaysian ethnic Chinese child joins a vigil for missing Malaysia Airlines passengers at the Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur
Authorities have revealed one of the two men who used stolen passports to board the missing Malaysian Airlines plane looked like Mario Balotelli (pictured). Right, Italian tourist Luigi Maraldi, 37, shows his current passport during a press conference at a police station in Phuket island, southern Thailand. One of the passengers on the missing plane travelled on the stolen passport of Mr Maraldi
But it contradicts a suggestion by Malaysia's civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman that the men who boarded the plane were not of 'Asian appearance'.
Asked by a reporter what they looked like 'roughly', 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'.
The latest report, by BBC Persian, quotes a Iranian friend of one of the men who says he hosted them in Kuala Lumpur after they arrived from Tehran.
They bought fake passports in the Malaysian capital to travel to Europe and claim asylum, he claimed. After reaching Beijing, the destination of flight MH370, the pair were said to have intended to carry on to Amsterdam.
One had planned to then travel to Frankfurt, to join his mother there, while the other wanted to continue on to Denmark. They were 'looking for a place settle', an editor at BBC Persian told The Telegraph.
A woman holds a candle and a sign during a vigil held near Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur
A woman holds a candle as she takes part in a candlelight vigil held by Malaysian ethnic Chinese for the passengers
Malaysian investigators are now downplaying suggestions that the airliner was the target of an attack, said U.S. and European government sources close to the probe.
Neither Malaysia's Special Branch, the agency leading the investigation locally, nor spy agencies in the United States and Europe have ruled out the possibility that militants may have been involved in downing flight MH370.
But officials have indicated that the evidence so far point to an attack as a cause for the aircraft's disappearance, and that mechanical or pilot problems could have led to the apparent crash, the U.S. sources said.
'There is no evidence to suggest an act of terror,' a European security source told Reuters. He added that there was also 'no explanation what's happened to it or where it is.'
Members of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) scan the seas about 140 nautical miles north-east of Kota Baru, Malaysia, for any signs of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane
Oil slicks can be seen from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) plane scanning the seas about 140 nautical miles north-east of Kota Baru, Malaysia
The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam said on its website searches were being conducted about 140 km (90 miles) southwest of Tho Chu island, which is located about 200 km off the coast of southern Vietnam
The possibility of a further two stolen passports used on the same flight is now being investigated after it emerged that no cross checks were carried out against Interpol's lost and stolen database
The latest developments came as authorities had yesterday still found no trace of the missing plane despite searches by ships from six navies and dozens of military aircraft.
A Thai travel agent who arranged the tickets for the two passengers has now said she had booked them on the flight via Beijing because they were the cheapest tickets, it has been reported.
The travel agent in the resort of Pattaya said an Iranian business contact she knew only as 'Mr Ali' had asked her to book tickets for the two men on March 1.
She had initially booked them on other airlines but those reservations expired and on March 6, Mr Ali had asked her to book them again.
She told the Financial Times she did not think Mr Ali, who paid her in cash and booked tickets with her regularly, was linked to terrorism.
The massive search is mainly in a 50-nautical mile radius from where the last contact with the plane was made, midway between Malaysia's east coast and the southern tip of Vietnam.
Flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, about an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur. Searches for the plane are now taking place throughout the area
Malaysia's Department Civil Aviation Director General, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman (left) with Malaysian Airlines CEO Group Ahmad Jauhari Yahya (right) during a press conference on the new search area
Potential sightings of possible airliner debris and a possible oil slick in the sea off Vietnam have not been officially verified or confirmed as investigative teams continue to search for the whereabouts of the missing flight
A U.S. led search is also taking place hundreds of miles away on the other side of the Malaysian peninsula.
Malaysia's civil aviation chief said today that the search for the Boeing 777 which vanished early Saturday morning had failed to find anything and that a sighting of a yellow object, which was earlier suspected to have been a life raft, was found to be a false alarm.
It has now also been confirmed an oil slick suspected of coming from the wreckage was not jet fuel.
Underlining the lack of hard information about the plane's fate, a U.S. Navy P-3 aircraft capable of covering 1,500 sq miles every hour was sweeping the northern part of the Strait of Malacca, on the other side of the Malaysian peninsula from where the last contact with MH370 was made.
'Our aircraft are able to clearly detect small debris in the water, but so far it has all been trash or wood,' said U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman Commander William Marks in an emailed statement.
As Interpol investigates whether up to four passengers boarded the plane using stolen passports, it was today revealed five passengers checked on to the flight but did not board the plane. Their baggage was removed before it departed.
Vietnamese military personnel prepare a helicopter for a search and rescue mission for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight
A minister today said rescue helicopters had been scrambled to check a 'yellow object' that rescue teams suspected could have been a life raft from the missing plane, but turned out to be a false alarm
The Singaporean submarine support and rescue vessel, MV Swift Rescue, is prepared before it departs to assist in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in Singapore
Search and rescue planes scoured waters off the southern tip of Vietnam on Monday, searching for any trace of a Malaysia Airlines jetl 48 hours after it vanished from radar screens with 239 people on board
The Boeing 777 went missing early on Saturday morning on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
Malaysia's civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman described the disappearance of the plane as an 'unprecedented aviation mystery'.
He said a hijacking could not be ruled out as investigators explore all theories for the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
'Unfortunately we have not found anything that appears to be objects from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft,' he told a news conference.
'As far as we are concerned, we have to find the aircraft, we have to find a piece of the aircraft if possible.'
As dozens of ships and aircraft from seven countries scour the seas around Malaysia and south of Vietnam, questions mounted over possible security lapses and whether a bomb or hijacking could have brought down the Boeing airliner.
Malaysia has expanded the search to its west coast after theories that the plane may have turned back toward Kuala Lumpur for some reason.
A total of 34 aircraft and 40 ships from 10 nations are involved in the search.
The U.S. 7th Fleet has sent a P-3C Orion surveillance plane from its base in Okinawa, Japan, and the USS Pinckney destroyer that is equipped with two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for search and rescue.
The Orion was used for more than three hours on Sunday, sweeping about 4,000 sq km every hour.
It is equipped with the APS-147, an advanced radar system that can identify a soccer ball bobbing in the water from hundreds of feet in the air.
Indonesian Navy pilots Maj. Bambang Edi Saputro, left, and 2nd Lt. Tri Laksono check their map during a search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777
An Indonesian Navy search and rescue personel looks out from the aircraft window during an aerial search for the missing plane
An Indonesian Navy pilot checks his map during a search operation for the missing aircraft
A relative of a passenger on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 answers media questions at Lido Hotel in Beijing, China
The Seahawks have been used for night searches, using a forward-looking infra-red camera.
'There are lots of challenges,' said Commander William Marks, a spokesman for the 7th Fleet.
'First should the central point be the point of last communication or last radar contact? Then you have to account for winds and currents. Every hour, the area gets bigger. It's been three days since the plane was reported missing, it's a very large area.'
China has sent four naval ships, a coastguard vessel and a civilian ship to help. Three other Orions have also been deployed - two from Australia and one from New Zealand.
Besides militaries and hi-technology, many others are involved in the search.
'We've ordered border guard forces and all fishing boats to check the area,' Pham Thanh Tuoi, chairman of the People's Committee of Vietnam's southern Ca Mau Province, told Reuters by phone.
'Everyone is on the alert and searching out at the sea, but we haven't found anything yet.'
Relatives of a Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 passenger wait for updated information regarding the missing aircraft at a hotel in Putrajaya
Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports
Malaysia's civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman described the disappearance of the plane as an 'unprecedented aviation mystery'
A family member of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia
It comes as Interpol criticised Thailand's lax airport security after it emerged at least two passengers' passports were stolen.
The possibility of a further two stolen passports used on the same flight is now being investigated after it emerged that no cross checks were carried out against Interpol's lost and stolen database.
PILOT ENJOYED FLYING SO MUCH HE HAD HIS OWN SIMULATOR
Procedural checks would have revealed that at least two passengers were travelling on stolen passports.
Malaysian authorities now believe they have CCTV images of the two men using the stolen passports to board the flights.
The images have been circulated across international intelligence agencies and will be cross-referenced with facial recognition software.
The passports were used to buy tickets booked in the names of Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel on March 6, 2014, and issued in the Thai city of Pattaya, a popular beach resort south of the capital Bangkok.
Officials believe one possible explanation for the stolen passports could be that they were being used for illegal immigration.
There are previous cases of illegal immigrants using fake passports, and Southeast Asia is known to be a booming market for stolen passports.
Flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, about an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur, after climbing to a cruising altitude of 35,000 ft (10,670 metres).
A Vietnamese navy plane reported seeing what could have been a piece of the aircraft as darkness fell across the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea on Sunday, but ships and aircraft returning in daylight have so far found nothing.
No distress signal was sent from the lost plane, which experts said suggested a sudden catastrophic failure or explosion, but Malaysia's air force chief said radar tracking showed it may have turned back from its scheduled route before it disappeared.
Last night a group called the Chinese Martyrs’ Brigade claimed responsibility for the plane’s disappearance but officials believed it could be a hoax.
The shadowy outfit sent a message saying: ‘You kill one of our clan, we will kill 100 of you as pay back’, in reference to the killing of a Chinese separatist who launched a bloody attack at a railway station over a week ago.
A senior source involved in preliminary investigations in Malaysia said the failure to quickly find any debris indicated the plane may have broken up mid-flight, which could disperse wreckage over a very wide area.
'The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet,' said the source.
Asked about the possibility of an explosion, such as a bomb, the source said there was no evidence yet of foul play and that the aircraft could have broken up due to mechanical causes.
Still, the source said the closest parallels were the explosion on board an Air India jetliner in 1985 when it was over the Atlantic Ocean and the Lockerbie air disaster in 1988. Both planes were cruising at around 31,000 feet when bombs exploded on board.
A cabin crew of Division 918 of the Vietnam Air Force is onboard a flying Soviet-made AN-26 during the search operations
A vessel is seen from a flying Soviet-made AN-26 of the Vietnam Air Force during a search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over the South China Sea
Ships are seen from a Soviet-made AN-26 of the Vietnam Air Force during a search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane
An iPad is used to support orientation by a military official inside a Vietnamese Air Force plane during search and rescue operations for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight
The United States extensively reviewed imagery taken by American spy satellites for evidence of a mid-air explosion, but saw none, a U.S. government source said. The source described U.S. satellite coverage of the region as thorough.
An Interpol spokeswoman said a check of all documents used to board the plane had revealed more 'suspect passports', which were being investigated.
'Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol's databases,' Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said.
Malaysia's state news agency quoted Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying the two passengers using the stolen European passports were of Asian appearance, and criticised the border officials who let them through.
An officer looks out of a helicopter during a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
A military official works inside a Vietnamese Air Force plane during search and rescue operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight
Malaysia's civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman described the disappearance of the plane as an 'unprecedented aviation mystery'
A travel agent in the resort of Pattaya (file picture) said an Iranian business contact she knew only as 'Mr Ali' had asked her to book tickets for the two men on March 1
'I am still perturbed. Can't these immigration officials think? Italian and Austrian but with Asian faces,' he was quoted as saying late on Sunday.
A European diplomat in Kuala Lumpur cautioned that the Malaysian capital was an Asian hub for illegal migrants, many of whom used false documents and complex routes including via Beijing or West Africa to reach a final destination in Europe.
'You shouldn't automatically think that the fact there were two people on the plane with false passports had anything to do with the disappearance of the plane,' the diplomat said.
'The more you know about the role of Kuala Lumpur in this chain, the more doubtful you are of the chances of a linkage.'
Boeing declined to comment and referred to its brief earlier statement that said it was monitoring the situation.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash came on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines flight 214 struck a seawall on landing in San Francisco, killing three people.
Agony of the relatives of those on board missing passenger jet as they wait for news of loved ones
Across the world, relatives of the passengers on the missing plane have been waiting anxiously for any news as to its whereabouts.
Of the 227 passengers, two-thirds were Chinese. There were also 38 passengers and 12 crew members from Malaysia, and others from elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America, including three Americans.
Hundreds of distraught relatives of those on board the plane have gathered in a hotel in Beijing, waiting to be flown to Malaysia.
Philip Wood, an IBM executive who had been working in Beijing over the past two years was aboard the the missing Malaysia Airlines jet liner
Mr Mukherjee, the vice-president of operations in China for the Pennsylvania-based XCoal Energy and Resources, was one of five Indians on the flight
'We accept God's will. Whether he is found alive or dead, we surrender to Allah,' said Selamat Omar, a Malaysian whose 29-year-old son, Mohamad Khairul Amri Selamat, was heading to Beijing for a business trip.
He said he was expecting a call from his son after the flight's scheduled arrival time at 6.30am on Saturday. Instead he got a call from the airline to say the plane was missing.
Family members of Philip Wood, a 50-year-old IBM executive who was on board, said they saw him a week ago when he visited them in Texas after relocating to Kuala Lumpur from Beijing, where he had worked for two years.
The other two Americans were identified on the passenger manifest as four-year-old Nicole Meng and two-year-old Yan Zhang. It was not known with whom they were travelling.
Globetrotters: Catherine and Robert Lawton, from Brisbane, were named as one of three couples from Australia who were missing
French teenagers Zhao Yan and Hadrien Wattrelos had enrolled together at the Lycee Francais International de Pekin. Both are believed to have been on board
A friend of one passenger meanwhile, speaking to reporters after a meeting with China's civil aviation authority and government officials in Beijing, said passengers' families were growing impatient.
'The family members are really not happy. They feel like they have waited far too long,' the man, surnamed Zhou, said. The main thing they are interested in is whether there is anyone left alive or not.'
'I can only pray for a miracle,' said Daniel Liau, the organiser of a calligraphic and painting exhibition in Malaysia attended by acclaimed Chinese calligrapher Meng Gaosheng, who boarded the flight with 18 other artists plus six family members and four staff.
'I feel very sad. Even though I knew them for a short time, they have become my friends,' Liau said.
Also traveling as a group were eight Chinese and 12 Malaysian employees of Austin, Texas, semiconductor company Freescale, which said it was assembling 'around-the-clock support' for their families.
Each day more than 80,000 flights take off and land around the world without incident. For seasoned Australian travelers Robert Lawton, 58, and his wife, Catherine, 54, the seemingly routine takeoff of flight MH370 was the beginning of another adventure.
Grieving Indonesian mother Suharni displays a portrait of her son Sugianto Lo and wife Vinny Chynthya who are both passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight
On board: Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid (left) and passenger Firman Siregar (right)
'They mentioned in passing they were going on another big trip and they were really excited,' Caroline Daintith, a neighbor, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television of the couple described as doting grandparents.
Sharing their adventure was another 50-something Australian couple, Rodney and Mary Burrows. Neighbour Don Stokes said the trip was intended as the beginning of the 'next step in their life'.
Among the family groups on board were teenage sweethearts Hadrien Wattrelos, 17, and Zhao Yan, 18, students at a French school in Beijing who were returning from the Malaysian leg of a two-week holiday along with Hadrien's mother and younger sister.
In December, Zhao changed her Facebook profile photo to one of her and Hadrien. He had commented: 'Je t'aime,' followed by a heart, and she had 'liked' his comment.
Victims: This handout picture taken on March 7, 2014 and released by Hamid Ramlan shows his daughter Norliakmar Hamid (second right) and her husband Razahan Zamani (right), who were passengers on a missing Malaysia Airlines flight
Some boarded the plane with more serious purposes in mind.
Colleagues of Chandrika Sharma said the 50-year-old director of the Chennai chapter of an organisation that works with fishermen was on her way from the southern Indian city to Mongolia for a Food and Agriculture Organization conference.
'There must still be hope,' said a colleague, Venogupal, who like many in India goes by one name.
He seemed, however, to be bracing for the worst. 'She was friendly and very loveable, very industrious and astute. We will miss her.'
For 24-year-old Firman Chandra Siregar from Medan, Indonesia, the flight was a new chapter. In Beijing, he was to start a three-year contract with Schlumberger, an oilfield services company.
Dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered at his family's home, some tearful, praying or watching news of the search and rescue operation. Like Sharma's colleagues, they were forced to let hope ebb away.
China warned of terror attacks days before plane disappeared
Taiwan's spy chief has today said the island passed on a warning of possible terrorist attacks in China just days before the Malaysia Airlines flight went missing early Saturday morning.
National Security Bureau head Tsai De-sheng told a legislative committee today that the NSB passed on a warning of planned attacks against the Beijing airport and the city's subway system to Chinese authorities following its receipt on Tuesday, March 4.
It comes as China's National People's Congress holds its annual session. It opened on Wednesday, March 5 and closes Thursday.
A member of a Chinese emergency response team adjusts equipment on the rescue vessel 'South China Sea Rescue 101', on the way to search for the missing plane
China's rescue vessels 'South China Sea Rescue 115' and 'South China Sea Rescue 101' will arrive at the possible crash site respectively on Monday night and Tuesday night to join the salvage mission for missing flight MH370
Tsai said the receipt of the warning prompted stepped up security measures at Taiwanese airports, particularly on Beijing-bound flights.
He said it had no connection to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight which was bound for Beijing.
China meanwhile has urged Malaysia to step up the search for the jetliner that went missing with 239 people on board, about two-thirds of them Chinese, and said it has sent security agents to help with an investigation into the misuse of passports.
As dozens of ships and aircraft from seven countries scoured the seas around Malaysia and south of Vietnam, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said it was too early to know what may have caused the plane to vanish but that family of the passengers deserved an explanation as soon as possible.
Chinese relatives of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane wait for the latest news inside a hotel room in Beijing
'This incident happened more than two days ago, and we hope that the Malaysians can fully understand the urgency of China, especially of the family members, and can step up the speed of the investigation and increase efforts on search and rescue,' Qin told reporters at a daily news briefing.
China's Public Security Ministry had sent a team to Malaysia to look into the use of the two stolen passports.
'We cannot confirm at present who it was who misused these two passports,' he said, adding the incident 'should certainly attract our greatest vigilance'.
As they were Italian and Austrian passports, they would not have needed a visa for a stay in Beijing that did not exceed 72 hours, Qin said.
He would not speculate on whether foul play could be behind the aircraft's disappearance.