More than 48 hours after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished above the South China Sea, police in Thailand have launched in investigation into a “passport ring” based on the resort island of Phuket. The Boeing 777, on a codeshare with China Southern Airlines, went missing less than an hour after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.
The names of two European men – Christian Kozel of Austria and Luigi Maraldi of Italy – appeared on the flight’s passenger manifest, but neither boarded the plane or even purchased tickets. Kozel reported his passport missing in 2012 and Maraldi had his stolen from a car rental agency last August; both incidents occurred in Phuket.
“The counterfeiting of all sorts of identifications is very widespread, particularly out of Thailand,” Steve Vickers, a Hong Kong-based risk consultant, told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s pretty easy to pick up a stolen or a counterfeit passport.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents from the U.S. will join local authorities in Thailand amid concerns that the passenger jet could have been taken down by an act of terrorism.
E-ticket numbers for the phantom passengers were consecutive and both were paid in Thai baht. Flight itineraries show that both men were to continue to Amsterdam, with Kozel then connecting to Frankfurt and Maraldi heading for Copenhagen.
The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) criticized Malaysian officials for letting the wrong individuals board the flight.
“We have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists, while Interpol is asking why only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights,” said Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble.
Interpol’s stolen passport registry contains more than 40 million entries. Countries that utilize it were able to identify more than 60,000 stolen travel documents in 2013.
“If [Malaysia Airlines] and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against Interpol’s database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH370,” Noble added.
Not everyone is convinced that the stolen passports have a connection to the airliner’s fate.
“Any flight of that size in Asia would be carrying a couple of people with false passports,” said Clive Williams, a counter-terrorism expert at Macquarie University in Australia. “When you think about the number of passports that have been stolen or gone missing around the world, it could be related, but it is probably not.”
This morning, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said that a total of four passengers are being investigated: the two impersonating Kozel and Marald, as well as two other travelers with European passports described as “possibly Ukrainian.”
“We have deployed our investigators to look through all the security camera footage. Also, they are interviewing immigration officials who let the impostors through,” one Malaysian official, on condition of anonymity, told The Star. “Early indications show some sort of security lapse.”
Adding to the mystery is another report, from Malaysia’s Interior Minister Zahid Hamidi, claiming that the two individuals using stolen passports were of Asian descent. Photos of Maraldi indicate that he is Caucasian.
“I am still puzzled how come [immigration officers] cannot think ‘an Italian and Austrian but with Asian facial features,’” Hamidi told Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications claimed to have located aircraft fragments about 80 kilometers south-southwest of Tho Chu Island late last night, but rescuers have failed to locate the debris today. Friends and family members of those on board have been told to “prepare for the worst.”