In a sharply worded criticism of shortcomings of national passport controls, the Lyon, France-based international police body said information about the thefts of an Austrian passport in 2012 and an Italian passport last year was entered into its database after they were stolen in Thailand.
The tickets were bought from China Southern Airlines in Thai baht at identical prices, according to China’s official e-ticket verification system Travelsky.
The ticket numbers are contiguous, which indicates the tickets were issued together. The new information adds to the mystery that has enveloped the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the passenger jet that disappeared over Southeast Asia yesterday on its way to Beijing with 239 people on board, including five Indians and a Canadian national of Indian origin.
Italy and Austria have said that none of their citizens were on board the plane. And officials say the Italian and Austrian whose names were on the passenger manifest both had their passports stolen in Southeast Asia in recent years. The two tickets booked with China Southern Airlines both start in Kuala Lumpur, flying to Beijing, and then onward to Amsterdam.
The Italian passport’s ticket continues to Copenhagen, the Austrian’s to Frankfurt, the report said. Authorities say they are investigating the identities of some of those on board who appear to have issues with their passports. Confusion over who exactly was on the plane has drawn particular attention, notably the case of the Italian and Austrian passports.
The passport mystery raised concerns about the possibility of terrorism, but officials cautioned that it was still too early to arrive at any conclusions. A US intelligence official said that no link to terrorism had been discovered so far, but that authorities were still investigating. Malaysian authorities have been in contact with counter-terrorism organizations about possible passport issues, Malaysia’s transportation minister Hishamuddin Hussein said.
He did not specify how many potential passport issues there were, saying authorities are looking at the whole passenger manifest. The US government has been briefed on the stolen passports and reviewed the names of the passengers in question but found nothing at this point to indicate foul play, an American law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
Meanwhile Malaysian officials are poring over closed-circuit TV footage and questioning immigration officers and guards at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, concerned that a security breach may be connected to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
The head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority told reporters on Sunday that two “imposters” had been identified by investigators as they made their way from check-in, through immigration to the departure gate. Malaysia’s transport minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, confirmed that investigators were looking at four passengers.
Asked how strongly investigators suspected foul play, the second official said: “There are initial indications but it’s too early…who knows what happened on that plane. But we are keeping our minds open.”
The timing of the incident, a week after knife-wielding assailants killed at least 29 people at a train station in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, led to speculation that militants from China’s Uighur Muslim minority could be involved.
One of the Malaysian officials said the authorities were not ruling out Uighur involvement in the jet’s disappearance, noting that Uighurs were deported to China from Malaysia in 2011 and 2012 for carrying false passports.
“This is not being ruled out. We have sent back Uighurs who had false passports before. It is too early to say whether there is a link,” the official said.
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that has courted close ties with Beijing in recent years, deported 11 Uighurs in 2011 it said were involved in a human smuggling syndicate.
The next year, it was condemned by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch for deporting six Uighurs the rights group described as asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch said the six had been detained while trying to leave Malaysia on fake passports.
A source with ties to the Chinese leadership said there was no confirmed connection to Uighur militants, but described the timing as “very suspicious” coming so soon after the Kunming attack.
Li Jiheng, governor of Yunnan province where Kunming is located, told reporters on Sunday that there was currently no information to show that the knife attack and the missing flight were “necessarily connected”.
Malaysia Airlines operations director, Hugh Dunleavy, told reporters in Beijing that they were aware of the reports of stolen passports.
“As far as we’re aware, every one of the people onboard that aircraft had a visa to go to China,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they weren’t false passports, but that means that it’s probably lower down on the probability scale.”
China has a reputation for being rigorous on visa approvals and checks at border entry points, but the pair’s European passports may have enabled them to bypass the visa scrutiny.
Under a recently launched exemption program, citizens of many Western nations are granted visa-free entry for 72 hours upon arrival in Beijing as long as they have an onward ticket.
The BBC reported that the men using the stolen passports had purchased tickets together and were flying on to Europe.
“People with fake passports present a huge problem for security,” said Yang Shu, a security expert at China’s Lanzhou University. “I strongly believe that they had something to do with the plane going missing.”