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Men with stolen passports on jet ‘not terrorists’

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Pictures of the two men, a 19-year old Iranian, identified by Malaysian police as Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, left, and the man on the right, his identity still not released, who boarded the now missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370 with stolen passports, is held up by a Malaysian policewoman during a press conference, Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Sepang, Malaysia. One of the two men traveling on a missing Malaysian Airlines jetliner was an Iranian asylum seeker, officials said Tuesday, as baffled authorities expanded their search for the Boeing 777 on the opposite side of the country from where it disappeared nearly four days ago with 239 people on board.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Pictures of the two men, a 19-year old Iranian, identified by Malaysian police as Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, left, and the man on the right, his identity still not released, who boarded the now missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370 with stolen passports, is held up by a Malaysian policewoman during a press conference, Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Sepang, Malaysia. One of the two men traveling on a missing Malaysian Airlines jetliner was an Iranian asylum seeker, officials said Tuesday, as baffled authorities expanded their search for the Boeing 777 on the opposite side of the country from where it disappeared nearly four days ago with 239 people on board.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

A Malaysian police woman holds up a picture of a 19-year-old Iranian, identified by Malaysian police as Pouria Nour Muhammad Mehrdad, who boarded the now missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370 with a stolen passport, during a press conference, Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Sepang, Malaysia. One of the two men traveling on a missing Malaysian Airlines jetliner was an Iranian asylum seeker, officials said Tuesday, as baffled authorities expanded their search for the Boeing 777 on the opposite side of the country from where it disappeared nearly four days ago with 239 people on board.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Airport staff move a white board plastered with messages of hope and encouragement to all involved with the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, MH370, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Tuesday, March 11, 2014, in Sepang, Malaysia. Authorities hunting for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner expanded their search on land and sea Tuesday, reflecting the difficulties in locating traces of the plane more than three days after it vanished. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Over a dozen microphones are propped on a table as Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar answers questions from the media during a press conference, Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Sepang, Malaysia. One of the two men traveling on a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner with a stolen passport was a 19-year-old Iranian man believed to be trying to migrate to Germany, and had no terror links, police said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

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)

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Two men traveling with stolen passports on a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner were Iranians who had bought tickets to Europe and were probably not terrorists, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

The announcement is likely to dampen, at least for now, speculation that the disappearance of the Boeing 777 was linked to terrorism. Police said both men bought their tickets in Thailand and entered Malaysia together.

No debris from the plane has been found. On Tuesday, baffled authorities expanded their search to the opposite side of Malaysia from where it disappeared more than three days ago with 239 people on board.

The airline says the pilots did not send any distress signals, suggesting a sudden and possibly catastrophic incident. Speculation has ranged widely about possible causes, including pilot error, plane malfunction, hijacking and terrorism.

News that two of the passengers were traveling with stolen passports immediately fueled speculation of foul play. However, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference Tuesday that investigators had determined one was a 19-year-old Iranian, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, and that it seemed likely that he was planning to migrate to Germany.

“We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group,” Khalid said.

Interpol identified the second man as a 29-year-old Iranian and released an image of the two boarding a plane at the same time. Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said the two men traveled to Malaysia on their Iranian passports, then apparently switched to their stolen Austrian and Italian documents.

He said speculation of terrorism appeared to be dying down “as the belief becomes more certain that these two individuals were probably not terrorists.”

Khalid said the 19-year-old man’s mother was waiting for him in Frankfurt and had been in contact with police. He said she contacted Malaysian authorities to inform them of her concern when her son didn’t get in touch with her.

He also said there was no truth to a statement by at least one other government official that five passengers had checked in for the flight but never boarded the airplane.

The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, on the western coast of Malaysia, early Saturday en route to Beijing. It flew across Malaysia into the Gulf of Thailand at 35,000 feet (11,000 meters) and then disappeared from radar screens.

Authorities have said the plane may have attempted to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur.

The hunt began on Saturday near the plane’s last known location. But with no debris found there, the search has been systematically expanded to include areas the plane could have reached with the fuel

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