Malaysian official discounts terrorism in case of missing airliner; 5 nations searching for wreckage

McClatchy Foreign StaffMarch 8, 2014 

— Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and other nations resumed the search for a missing passenger jet at daybreak Sunday, amid mounting concerns over the possible cause of the plane’s disappearance.

As the search entered its second day, questions about possible terrorism arose after it was discovered that two passengers listed as having been aboard the aircraft were both found to be safe, but had had their passports stolen -- one, two years ago.

Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s transport minister, issued a statement saying that terrorism was not suspected, but that all possibilities were being investigated.

Nearly a day and a half after Malaysia Airlines lost track of Flight MH370, a Boeing 777 that took off from Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, early Saturday carrying 239 people, the search for the aircraft was centered off the coast of Vietnam. Officials from Vietnam reported oil slicks off that country’s southern coast that could be from the engines of the plane, but there was no confirmation that the oil is from the aircraft’s engines.

“At this stage, they have failed to find evidence of any wreckage,” Malaysia Airlines said of the searchers in a statement posted on its website early Sunday. “The sea mission will continue overnight while the air mission will recommence at daylight.”

In addition, China has sent ships to help with the rescue, according to China's Xinhua news service, and a U.S. Navy destroyer equipped with two helicopters is also assisting the operation.

Most crashes involving commercial airliners occur during landing or takeoff so the disappearance of the plane while in flight added to the mystery and raised the prospect that it might be months or years before the fate of the aircraft will be learned.

The crash recalls the June 1, 2009, disappearance of Air France Flight 447, which vanished in bad weather on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 228 passengers and crew members aboard. The plane’s wreckage wasn’t found for nearly two years, and it was only last year that French investigators determined that pilot error was responsible for the crash.

Despite the Malaysian transport minister’s statement that terrorism was not suspected, aviation analysts and others have raised the possibility of foul play, given the eerily similar stories of the two people whose names appeared on the passenger manifest, but were subsequently found to be safe.

One was an Italian named Luigi Maraldi, who called his parents from Thailand to assure them that he was safe after news outlets listed him as a passenger on the flight. Maraldi had had his passport stolen in Thailand last year. He’d since been issued a new one.

“One hypothesis therefore is that he was listed because someone boarded the plane using his stolen passport,” the Italian newspaper Corriera della Serra reported.

In addition, an Austrian listed among the passengers also was found to be safe. According to the Austrian foreign ministry, his passport had been stolen in Thailand two years earlier.

If terror was not a factor in the flight’s disappearance, other possibilities include a catastrophic engine or structural failure, an accidental military strike, or weather-related crash.

Meteorologists, however, say the weather wasn’t rough at the time of the crash. Aviation authorities in several countries reported no distress call from the pilots, which would have occurred if there was engine trouble or most other kinds of mechanical failure.

In Malaysia, air traffic controllers reported at 2:40 a.m Saturday that they had lost contact with the flight, which was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. local time on Saturday.

The lingering uncertainty has worn heavily on family and friends of those on board, who have waited for nearly a day and half to receive confirmation about their loved ones. Malaysia Airlines and Chinese officials sequestered dozens of friends and relatives of the missing passengers at the Lido Hotel in Beijing, where several voice frustration with the lack of information.

At least three Americans were among the passengers on the flight, along with Malaysian, Indonesian, Australian and French citizens, according to the airline. But the bulk of the passengers -- 154 -- were Chinese, which made the crash this nation’s most closely watched news story.

The passengers from China included painters, calligraphers and Buddhists returning from a religious gathering, Chinese state media reported Sunday.

On Saturday, an Austin, Texas-based company, Freescale Semiconductor, confirmed that 20 of its employees were passengers on Flight 370. Twelve are from Malaysia and eight from China, the company said.

“At present, we are solely focused on our employees and their families,” said Gregg Lowe, the company’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragic event.”

Malaysia Airlines has a generally good safety record, in spite of financial troubles the airline appears to be recovering from.

The last major accident involving a Malaysia Airlines flight was in 1995, when a Fokker 50 (9M-MGH) crashed during approach in Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia, killing 34 people. In 1977, a Malaysia Airlines flight was hijacked and crashed in Tanjung Capping, Johor, Malaysia, killing all 100 people aboard.

Email: sleavenworth@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @sleavenworth

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