Kuala Lumpur/Beijing: Malaysia on Sunday launched a terror probe into the mysterious disappearance of a plane with 239 people aboard after it emerged that two passengers boarded the flight with stolen passports, even as a massive multinational search mission continued for the second day without any success.
Preliminary investigation indicated that the Boeing 777-200 flight of Malaysia Airlines that went missing on Saturday over the South China Sea en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur may have turned back. The plane had 227 passengers aboard, including five Indians and one Indian-origin Canadian, and 12 crew members.
Planes and ships from six countries on Sunday resumed the hunt for the MH370 flight that suddenly disappeared from the radar one hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur Airport on Friday midnight.
The discovery that two passengers were carrying stolen passports raised the unsettling possibility of foul play. "We are not ruling out anything," the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said in Kuala Lumpur on being asked whether terror angle was being probed.
On two impostors who boarded the flight using passports lost by an Italian and an Austrian, Malaysian Defence Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said authorities would screen "the entire manifest" of the flight.
The minister confirmed the FBI has dispatched its officers to Malaysia. "At the same time our own intelligence has been activated, and of course, the counter-terrorism units from all the relevant countries have been informed," he said.
Hussein also did not rule out the possibility of a hijack. Meanwhile, Interpol today said at least two passports recorded as lost or stolen in its database were used by the passengers. International police agency said it was "examining additional suspect passports".
Officials from Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation on Sunday said they have dispatched three jets to join the massive search and were working with a US company that specialises in disaster recovery to locate the aircraft.
They said the search effort continued overnight to locate the missing plane. But the mission made little progress as they have not traced any wreckage or debris afloat. "The search and rescue teams are still unable to detect the whereabouts of the missing aircraft" en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines said in a statement.
"The airline is continuously working with the authorities in providing assistance. In fearing for the worst, a disaster recovery management specialist from Atlanta, United States, will be assisting Malaysia Airlines in this crucial time. A command centre would be set up either in Kota Baru, in Kelantan state or in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, as soon as it could establish the location of the missing aircraft, it added.
Malaysian authorities are also looking into the possibility of an air turn back that could have been undertaken by the missing plane, a senior minister said on Sunday. In an air turn back, a plane returns to its airport of origin as a result of a malfunction or suspected malfunction of any item on the aircraft.
"The Boeing 777-200 did not transmit any abnormalities before the ground control centre in Subang lost contact with it," Department of Civil Aviation Director-general Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said.
Earlier, Vietnam sent a boat to investigate a "strange object" spotted by a Singaporean search plane in the area in focus about 90 miles south of Vietnam's Tho Chu Island. Besides Vietnam's fleet, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the US have deployed a total of 22 aircraft and 40 ships to the area.
The US has also dispatched a team of experts, including officials from the National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing, to help authorities probe the missing plane. The red flags were raised yesterday when it was found that four passengers with suspect identities were able to board the ill-fated Flight MH370.
The weather was fine, the aircraft was cruising and the pilots did not get time to send a distress signal unusual circumstance for a modern plane to crash, experts said.
Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel appeared on the passenger manifest list for Flight MH370. Both claimed they had lost their passport in Thailand and are safe.
"We have also informed the counter-terrorism units of all relevant countries," Hussein said. "If it is an international network, the Malaysian immigration alone will not be sufficient."
Hussein said the entire flight manifest was also under scrutiny, saying "if there was a security risk, we will look into where the lapse was."
"We do not want to target only the four; we are investigating the whole passenger manifest. We are looking at all possibilities," he added.
The list of passengers on board includes 154 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, 7 Indonesians, 6 Australians, 5 Indians, 4 Americans and 2 Canadians. Indians, including three from one family, were identified as Chetna Kolekar, 55, Swanand Kolekar, 23, Vinod Kolekar, 59, Chandrika Sharma, 51, and Kranti Shirsatha, 44.
"At this point, we have not established if there was a security risk involved (and) we do not want to jump the gun," Hussein told reporters when asked if hijack or terror elements could be behind in the disappearance of the flight.
Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said police have not classified terrorism attack behind the disappearance of the plane but are not ruling out any possibilities.
He said police will investigate all angles and obtain CCTV footage from Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
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