Stolen passports used to board missing Malaysian flight were in Interpol database, but no one checked

McClatchy Foreign StaffMarch 9, 2014 

— A Vietnamese search team reported finding a door thought to be part of a missing Malaysian Airlines airliner on Monday as questions continued to swirl about lax security that allowed people with stolen passports to board the flight.

A Vietnamese team in a low-flying plane spotted an object that appeared to be one of the plane’s doors, Vietnam’s state-run Thanh Nien newspaper said, citing the deputy chief of staff of Vietnam’s army, Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan.

The newspaper said that two ships from the maritime police were headed to the site about, 60 miles south of Tho Chu island in the Gulf of Thailand, the same area where oil slicks were spotted Saturday.

Meanwhile, Interpol reported that no one had used its vast databases to check the validity of passports for the people who boarded Flight MH370 flight in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, on an overnight flight to Beijing. The Boeing 777-200ER vanished early Saturday with 239 people aboard.

In a statement Sunday, Interpol confirmed that at least two passports – one Austrian and the other Italian – that were used by passengers who boarded the missing plane were listed in its stolen and lost travel documents database. The identities of at least two other passengers listed on the flight are 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,” the agency’s secretary general, Ronald K. Noble, said.

“This is a situation we had hoped never to see,” he added. “For years Interpol has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates.”

The passenger manifest issued by Malaysia Airlines listed the names of two Europeans -- Austrian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi -- who turned out not to be aboard the plane, according to their countries’ respective foreign ministries. Both men had reported their passports stolen in Thailand during the past two years.

As first reported by London’s Daily Telegraph, the men who falsely used their passports had purchased tickets together and were booked to fly on to Amsterdam after touching down in Beijing. That meant they did not have to undergo the security checks involved in obtaining a Chinese visa.

According to the Reuters news agency, an employee at a travel agency in Pattaya, Thailand, confirmed that the two men had purchased the tickets there.

Some 34 aircraft and 40 ships from Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the United States have been deployed an area south of Vietnam to search for the plane, which left Kuala Lumpur early Saturday morning in route to Beijing. There have been reports of oil slicks in the area, but no substantial wreckage, leading to speculation that the plane might have disintegrated into the air.

Adding to the mystery are reports from Malaysian officials that the flight might have done a U-turn before air traffic controllers lost track of it on 2:40 a.m. Saturday.

“What we have done is actually look into the recording on the radar that we have and we realized there is a possibility the aircraft did make a turnback,” said Rodzali Daud, the Royal Malaysian Air Force chief, at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday attended by several wire services.

Despite mounting concerns the flight was downed by a hijacking or other act of terror, Malaysian officials said they looking at other causes of the presumed crash.

“We are looking at all possibilities,” said Malaysian Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein on Sunday. “We cannot jump the gun. Our focus now is to find the plane.”

Most crashes involving commercial airliners occur during landing or takeoff, adding to questions about while a Boeing aircraft with a good safety record would suddenly disappear. The weather was calm at the time and the pilots did not issue a distress call.

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.

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

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

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