Sunday, March 9, 2014

Global Impact: Update--On Disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

According to Reuters, officials investigating the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner with 239 people on board suspect it may have disintegrated in mid-flight, a senior source said on Sunday (March 9), as Vietnam reported a possible sighting of wreckage from the plane.

International police agency Interpol confirmed that at least two passports recorded in its database as lost or stolen were used by passengers on the flight, raising suspicions.

An INTERPOL spokeswoman said a check of all documents used to board the plane had revealed more "suspect passports" that are being further investigated.

Malaysia's Air Force chief said the Beijing-bound airliner may have turned back from its scheduled route before it vanished from radar screens.

COMMENT: "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," a source involved in the investigations in Malaysia told Reuters.

If the plane had plunged intact from close to its cruising altitude, breaking up only on impact with the water, search teams would have expected to find a fairly concentrated pattern of debris, 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.

Dozens of military and civilian vessels have been criss-crossing waters beneath the aircraft's flight path, but have found no confirmed trace of the lost plane, although oil slicks have been reported in the sea south of Vietnam and east of Malaysia.

Late on Sunday, the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam said on its website that a Vietnamese Navy aircraft had spotted an object in the sea suspected of being part of the plane, but that it was too dark to be certain. Search planes were set to return to investigate the suspected debris at daybreak.

Malaysian authorities said they were widening the search to cover vast swathes of sea around Malaysia and off Vietnam, and were investigating at least two passengers who were using carrying fraudulent passports.

The passenger manifest issued by the airline included the names of two Europeans: Austrian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi who, according to their foreign ministries, were not on Flight MH370. Both had apparently had their passports stolen in Thailand during the past two years.

The BBC reported that the two Europeans fraudulently used their passports and had purchased tickets together and were due to fly on to Europe from Beijing, meaning they did not have to apply for a Chinese visa and undergo further scrutiny.

An employee at a travel agency in Pattaya, in Thailand, told Reuters the two had purchased the tickets there.

INTERPOL maintains a vast database of more than 40 million lost and stolen travel documents, and has long urged member countries to make greater use of it to stop people crossing borders on fraudulent travel documents.

INTERPOL confirmed that Kozel's and Maraldi's passports had both been added to the database after their theft in 2012 and 2013 respectively. But it said no country had consulted the database to check either of them since their passports were stolen.

"Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and Flight MH370, 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 in a statement.

In an indicator that Malaysia's airport screening controls may have been circumvented, Prime Minister Najib Razak said security procedures were being reviewed.

Malaysian Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said authorities were also checking the identities of two other passengers. He said help was also being sought from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). However, an attack was only one of the possibilities being investigated.

Air traffic controllers last had contact with Flight MH370 some 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu. 

Flight tracking website http://www.flightaware.com revealed that the flight flew northeast after takeoff, climbed to 35,000 feet and was still climbing when it vanished from tracking records.

"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," Rodzali Daud, the Royal Malaysian Air Force chief, told reporters at a news conference.

The search was being extended to the west coast of the Malay peninsula, in addition to a much broader sector of the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam, he said.

Vietnamese Navy vessels sent from the holiday island of Phu Quoc patrolled stretches of the Gulf of Thailand, scouring the area where an oil slick was spotted by patrol jets just before nightfall on Saturday.

In addition to the deployment of Vietnamese aircraft and vessels, Malaysia and neighboring countries have deployed 34 aircraft and 40 ships in the search. China and the United States have also sent ships to help, and Washington has also deployed a maritime surveillance plane.

The airline has said 14 nationalities were among the passengers, including at least 152 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.