Stolen passports probed in Malaysian plane mystery

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An Indonesian Navy crew member scans the water bordering Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand during a search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 near the Malacca straits on Monday, March 10, 2014. Dozens of ships and aircraft have failed to find any piece of the missing Boeing 777 jet that vanished more than two days ago above waters south of Vietnam as investigators pursued “every angle” to explain its disappearance, including hijacking, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said Monday. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

An Indonesian Navy crew member scans the water bordering Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand during a search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 near the Malacca straits on Monday, March 10, 2014. Dozens of ships and aircraft have failed to find any piece of the missing Boeing 777 jet that vanished more than two days ago above waters south of Vietnam as investigators pursued “every angle” to explain its disappearance, including hijacking, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said Monday. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

A man sits in front of closed door of the Grand Horizon Travel office in Pattaya, Chonburi province, Thailand, Monday, March 10, 2014. Thai police said owners of the travel agency told them they had received orders from a China Southern Airlines office in Bangkok for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 for two individuals who boarded the flight with fake passports. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

A girl stands next to a sign board made and written by the public at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Monday, March 10, 2014. Vietnamese aircraft spotted what they suspected was one of the doors of the missing Boeing 777 on Sunday, while questions emerged about how two passengers managed to board the ill-fated aircraft using stolen passports. (AP Photo/Daniel Chan)

A family member of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane wipes her tears at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Monday, March 10, 2014. Vietnamese aircraft spotted what they suspected was one of the doors of the missing Boeing 777 on Sunday, while questions emerged about how two passengers managed to board the ill-fated aircraft using stolen passports. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

Policemen talk to a staff member of Grand Horizon Travel during questioning at its office in Pattaya, Chonburi province, Thailand, Monday, March 10, 2014. Thai police said owners of the travel agency told them they had received orders from a China Southern Airlines office in Bangkok for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 for two individuals who boarded the flight with fake passports. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

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PATTAYA, Thailand (AP) — Authorities questioned travel agents Monday at a beach resort in Thailand about two men who boarded the vanished Malaysia Airlines plane with stolen passports, part of a growing international investigation into what they were doing on the flight.

Nearly three days after the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, no debris has been seen in Southeast Asian waters.

Five passengers who checked in for Flight MH370 didn’t board the plane, and their luggage was removed from it, Malaysian authorities said. Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this also was being investigated, but he didn’t say whether this was suspicious.

The search effort, involving at least 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries, was being widened to a 100-nautical mile (115-mile, 185-kilometer) radius from the point the plane vanished from radar screens between Malaysia and Vietnam early Saturday with no distress signal.

Two of the passengers were traveling on passports stolen in Thailand and had onward tickets to Europe, but it’s not known whether the two men had anything to do with the plane’s disappearance. Criminals and illegal migrants regularly travel on fake or stolen documents.

Hishammuddin said biometric information and CCTV footage of the men has been shared with Chinese and U.S. intelligence agencies, who were helping the investigation. Almost two-thirds of the passengers on the flight were from China.

The stolen passports, one belonging to Christian Kozel of Austria and the other to Luigi Maraldi of Italy, were entered into Interpol’s database after they were taken in Thailand in 2012 and 2013, the police organization said.

Electronic booking records show that one-way tickets with those names were issued Thursday from a travel agency in the beach resort of Pattaya in eastern Thailand. Thai police Col. Supachai Phuykaeokam said those reservations were placed with the agency by a second travel agency in Pattaya, Grand Horizon.

Thai police and Interpol officers questioned the owners. Officials at Grand Horizon refused to talk to The Associated Press.

Police Lt. Col. Ratchthapong Tia-sood said the travel agency was contacted by an Iranian man known only as “Mr. Ali” to book the tickets for the two men.

“We have to look further into this Mr. Ali’s identity because it’s almost a tradition to use an alias when doing business around here,” he said.

The travel agency’s owner, Benjaporn Krutnait, told The Financial Times she believed Mr. Ali was not connected to terrorism because he had asked for cheapest tickets to Europe and did not specify the Kuala Lumpur to Beijing flight.

Malaysia’s police chief was quoted by local media as saying that one of the two men had been identified — something that could speed up the investigation.

Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman declined to confirm this, but said they were of “non-Asian” appearance, adding that authorities were looking at the possibility the men were connected to a stolen passport syndicate.

Asked by a reporter what they looked like, he said: “Do you know of a footballer by the name of (Mario) Balotelli? He is an Italian. Do you know how he looks like?” A reporter then asked, “Is he black?” and the aviation chief replied, “Yes.”

Possible causes of the apparent crash include an explosion, catastrophic engine failure, terrorist attack, extreme turbulence, pilot error or even suicide, according to experts, many of whom cautioned against speculation because so little is known.

On Sunday,

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