Airliner hunt moves to west coast of Malaysia

The search area for a missing airliner has expanded, with Malaysia Airlines saying the western coast of the country is now the focus of the hunt.

That is on the other side of Malaysia from where flight MH370 was reported missing.

The airline said the hunt had expanded beyond the flight path, and the “focus is on the west peninsular of Malaysia at the Straits of Malacca”.

Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said search teams were still looking in both areas.

Vietnam’s deputy military chief said he had ordered a land search for the plane up to border with Laos and Cambodia.

The announcements reflect the difficulty authorities are having in finding the plane, which was carrying 239 people when it vanished off radar screens on Saturday.

It comes a day after authorities questioned travel agents at a beach resort in Thailand about two men who boarded the flight with stolen passports, part of a growing international investigation.

Five passengers who checked in for flight MH370 did not 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 did not say whether this was suspicious.

Two men were travelling on passports stolen in Thailand and had onward tickets to Europe, but it is not known if they had anything to do with the plane’s disappearance. Criminals and illegal migrants regularly travel on fake or stolen documents.

Mr Hishammuddin said biometric information and CCTV footage of the men has been shared with Chinese and US 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 organisation said.

Electronic booking records show that one-way tickets with those names were issued on Thursday from a travel agency in the beach resort of Pattaya in eastern Thailand. Thai police chief Supachai Phuykaeokam said those reservations were placed with the agency by a second travel agency in Pattaya, called Grand Horizon.

Thai police and Interpol officers questioned the owners.

Police 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, said 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.

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, 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 might have turned back, but there were no further details on which direction it went or how far it veered off course.

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