Malaysia denies report on missing jet's errant course

BEIJING — The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 grew more puzzling Tuesday as reports suggested the plane may have veered more than 300 miles west of its intended flight path and flew lower and longer than previously thought.

Although the flight from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, to Beijing disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, military sources told the Malaysian press that it was detected by the military at 2:40 a.m. over the Strait of Malacca — a narrow stretch of water off the west coast of the Malay peninsula.

Malaysia's air force released a statement early Wednesday denying the report, but acknowledged that the search area for the missing plane had been widened.

The Boeing 777, carrying 239 people, seemingly disappeared without a trace, and thus far, search-and-rescue crews have been unable to find any debris or jet fuel despite an increasingly frantic effort.

One clue about what may have happened proved a dead end when investigators revealed Tuesday that two passengers traveling on stolen passports were young Iranian men who probably were trying to immigrate to Europe and had no known links to terrorist organizations.

Malaysian Police Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters that one of the men was Pouria Nour Mohammed Mehrdad, a 19-year-old whose mother was waiting for him in Frankfurt, Germany. She contacted authorities after the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was reported missing.

"We believe he does not have any links to terrorism, and we believe he was just trying to migrate to Germany," Khalid said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.

The other man was identified by Interpol as 29-year-old Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza. At a news conference in Lyons, France, the agency showed photos of the two men, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, at the airport. They appeared to be friends, traveling together, although Reza's ticket had him flying to Copenhagen as his final destination.

Investigators said Tuesday that they would examine the possibility of a hijacking, sabotage, a psychological problem among one of the crew members or passengers — or an accident. They said they were closely examining the behavior patterns of the passengers from video footage taken at Kuala Lumpur airport before the flight boarded.

"Maybe somebody on the flight has bought a huge sum of insurance, who wants family to gain from it or somebody who has owed somebody so much money, you know, we are looking at all possibilities," Khalid said. "Other than mechanical problems, these are the main areas of concern."

Despite an expanded search area, no trace has yet been found of the airliner.

A local Malay-language newspaper, Berita Harian, quoted Malaysian Air Force Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying that at 2:40 a.m., the airliner was near Pulau Perak, a small rocky island in the Strait of Malacca off the coast of Penang.

Rodzali said Wednesday that he was misquoted, but acknowledged in a statement that the air force "has not ruled out the possibility of an air turn-back ... before the aircraft vanished from the radar, and this resulted in the search-and-rescue operations being widened to the vicinity of the waters off Penang."

The change of course could be explained either by a decision by the pilots to turn back or a hijacking, analysts say.

Pilot misconduct is another possibility under investigation: Two South African women on Tuesday said that during a flight in 2011, Fariq Abdul Hamid, the copilot on Flight 370, invited them into the cockpit, smoked cigarettes and chatted with them for hours, in violation of airline regulations.

"I know for the whole time they weren't facing the front of the plane and actually flying," one of the women, Jonti Roos, told an Australian television station. She released videos and photos of herself and her friend posing flirtatiously with the pilot. The airline said Tuesday that it could not confirm the "validity of the pictures."

The disappearance of Flight 370 is developing into one of the most baffling of airline mysteries. The crash of Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009 also proved elusive to investigators, but that was over the Atlantic, a larger and deeper body of water.

With few other clues about why the plane vanished early Saturday, intense speculation had focused on the two Iranian passengers, Mehrdad and Reza, traveling on passports that had previously been reported stolen by tourists in Thailand. One belonged to an Austrian tourist who said his passport was stolen at Phuket's airport and the other to an Italian who has said the passport was taken when he left it as a deposit to rent a motorcycle.

The Financial Times reported that the Iranians had purchased their tickets through a travel agency in Pattaya, Thailand. Benjaporn Krutnait, owner of the agency Grand Horizon Travel, told the newspaper that the tickets were booked by an Iranian business associate she knew as "Mr. Ali" and that the passengers were traveling through Beijing because the tickets were the cheapest to Europe available.

Thailand is considered a major hub for trafficking in stolen and forged passports, which are reported purchased by criminals as well as economic migrants trying to get to Europe or the United States, according to investigators.

Speculation also focused on the possibility of Islamic terrorism.

The airplane's disappearance came after a knifing rampage March 1 that killed 29 in a train station in Kunming, China. That attack was attributed to Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Islamic minority from northwestern China.

The Chinese government has tried to downplay suggestions of terrorism in the flight's disappearance, but officials have not ruled it out as a possibility.

Malaysia Airlines said in a statement Tuesday that nine aircraft and 24 ships had been deployed to search for the missing plane, with participants coming from nations including the United States, Australia, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.

With the location of the plane and the reason for its disappearance unknown, frustration grew among family members. Malaysia Airlines was reported to have offered families $5,000 in emergency funds, but many declined the money, according to Chinese news reports.

"It's been many days now. We relatives really want to know what is going on," said a weary-looking middle-aged Chinese man who emerged from a conference room in a Beijing hotel where family members of the missing were being accommodated. He declined to give his name. "You reporters probably know more than me — if I knew, I would tell you."

Times staff writer Carol Williams in Los Angeles and Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

s and Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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