Iranian people-smuggling link as Malaysia jet search widens

AFP-JIJI

Malaysian police said Tuesday one of two suspect passengers who flew on a missing passenger jet was an Iranian illegal immigrant, as relatives of some of the 239 people on board said their hopes for a miracle were ebbing away.

Authorities have doubled the search radius to 100 nautical miles (equivalent to 185 km) around the point where Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappeared from radar over the South China Sea early Saturday, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

“We are intensifying our search and rescue, and hoping against hope there is still an opportunity for us to rescue (the passengers and crew),” Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.

The parliament of Muslim-majority Malaysia observed a moment of silence and prayer for the 227 passengers and 12 crew.

The 34-year-old son of Malaysian security guard Subramaniam Gurusamy was on the flight to do business in Beijing for an oil company.

“My 3-year-old grandson is asking: ‘where is Dad?’ We tell him father has gone to buy sweets for you,” Gurusamy, 60, said as he broke down in tears.

“Please bring back my son. I am praying for divine intervention. That is the only hope we have.”

Fears of terrorism were stoked by the weekend revelation that two men boarded the flight using stolen European passports. But police said people-smuggling was emerging as the likeliest explanation for the identity fraud.

One of the pair had been identified as a 19-year-old Iranian, Malaysia’s national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters.

“We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terror group and we believe he was trying to migrate to Germany,” he said, adding that authorities had not yet identified the other man.

Khalid said police were not ruling anything out, focusing their investigations on various theories, including a hijacking, sabotage or psychological problems among passengers or crew.

The two passports — one Italian and one Austrian — were stolen over the past two years in Thailand, where police have long been battling a thriving trade in Western documents used by criminal gangs.

An Iranian man identified as “Mr. Ali” made the two bookings by phone through a travel agency in the Thai resort of Pattaya on March 1, asking for the two cheapest tickets to Europe, Thai police say.

“We believe that these two passports were stolen by a human-smuggling gang who send people to work in third countries, especially European countries,” Lt. Gen. Panya Maman, commander of Thailand’s southern police region, said.

One of the tickets was from Kuala Lumpur to Frankfurt, via Beijing and Amsterdam, while the final destination for the other ticket was Copenhagen, according to travel documents.

Flight MH370, captained by a veteran MAS pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be good.

The vastness of the search zone reflects authorities’ bafflement over the plane’s disappearance. On the fourth day of searching, the operation had grown to involve 42 ships and 35 aircraft from Southeast Asian countries, Australia, China, New Zealand and the United States.

Vietnam asked fishing boats off its southern coast — where the flight dropped off radar — for help in the effort but said it feared the worst.

“In terms of our assessments and predictions- we have little hope of a positive outcome,” Pham Quy Tieu, deputy minister of transport, said Tuesday.

The search sphere now includes land on the Malaysian peninsula itself, the waters off its west coast, and an area to the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

That covers an area far removed from the scheduled route of MAS flight MH370, which officials say may have inexplicably turned back towards Kuala Lumpur.

China, which had 153 of its nationals on board the plane, said it would harness 10 satellites equipped with high-resolution imaging to help in the search. Boeing said it was joining a U.S. government team to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to its 777-200 plane.

Conflicting information has deepened the anguish of relatives, with tests on oil slicks in the South China Sea showing they were not from the missing jet and reports of possible debris from the flight also proving to be false alarms.

At a hotel in Beijing where relatives are gathered, a woman surnamed Cao said that her husband’s brother had been on board as part of a group accompanying Chinese artists to an exhibition in Malaysia

“We feel really helpless and haven’t been to sleep for days as we are very worried,” she said. “We are mentally prepared for the worst.”

A man in his 20s surnamed Su said: “I hope it is a hijacking, then there will be some hope that my young cousin has survived.

“My uncle and aunt had an emotional breakdown, they are not eating, drinking and sleeping.”

A total of 17 Chinese relatives have so far taken up an offer from Malaysia Airlines to fly to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the operation, and more are expected in the coming days, the airline said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang reiterated demands for Malaysia to look after the relatives “and give them accurate information in a timely fashion.”

Malaysia Airlines stressed: “We are as anxious as the families to know the status of their loved ones.”