Malaysia investigators probe possible airport security lapse

KUALA LUMPUR Sun Mar 9, 2014 8:23am EDT

Passengers queue up at the Malaysia Airlines ticketing booth at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang March 9, 2014. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Passengers queue up at the Malaysia Airlines ticketing booth at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang March 9, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Edgar Su

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian officials are poring over CCTV 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.

Suspicions that the Beijing-bound Boeing jet, which vanished on Saturday with 239 people on board, may have been hijacked or bombed have risen after at least two passengers were found to be using stolen passports, though Malaysia's government stressed it was considering all possibilities.

Malaysian investigators, assisted by the FBI, are probing the identities of four passengers in particular, two Malaysian officials with knowledge of the investigation told Reuters.

The four comprise two travelers with European passports, possibly Ukrainian, in addition to two travelling on stolen Austrian and Italian passports, the sources said.

"We have deployed our investigators to look through all the security camera footage. Also, they are interviewing immigration officials who let the imposters through," said one official with direct knowledge of the investigation.

"Early indications show some sort of a security lapse, but I cannot say any further right now."

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.

A spokesperson for Malaysia Airports Holdings, which operates the country's airports, declined to comment.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Sunday that the country's airport security protocols would be reviewed, The Star newspaper reported.

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."

UIGHUR LINK "NOT RULED OUT"

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."

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Adam Rose and Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Eveline Danubrata in Kuala Lumpur; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Comments (1)
anonymousbob wrote:
This is an interesting story/mystery. I am wondering why no one has mentioned searching beyond the waters. There could be many reasons that the plane had gone off the radar, and if it was a deliberate act, the plane would have enough fuel to travel to another (unknown) country.

The reasons would still be unknown, and I’m not sure if such an “unidentified aircraft” would be that easy to evade from the foreign (non-Malaysian) countries’ local radars, especially the defense ones that monitor airspace for national security purposes. However, I am speculating that, unless the plane had been unsuccessfully hijacked (due to the suspicion of four unidentified individuals on the plane) and resulted in a tragic accident, that the plane might have flown to somewhere on land, like the rural areas of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, or even Vietnam, where no one would notice at all.

I have absolutely no professional knowledge on planes, but another thinking though, is that the plane, if it was truly an accident, and that the plane had lost total thrust because of an electrical failure, would drift towards southwestern Malaysia in the direction of Kuching, due to trade winds, or at least the water current would have drifted the aircraft to that area or lower if the aircraft did land in water. So to conclude, I can’t say for sure if that south to south-west area has been searched, though it does seems, after reading all the articles across the web about the situation, that much attention is focused on the upper parts towards the Gulf of Thailand and the southern tip of Vietnam rather than the southern area, and that I think the search should be broadened to a land search as well as a southern-water search.

The oil slick, a possibility, but the slick’s location seems rather irrelevant after so many hours.

Just a note that all of the above of what I’ve written is purely a speculation. I’m just sharing my point of view. Hope the plane can be found soon.

Mar 09, 2014 10:37am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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