Three days since the disappearance, mystery has deepened over the fate of a Malaysian jet carrying 239 people, as tests on oil slicks scotched suspicions it was aircraft fuel while the search for debris failed to yield any trace of the missing aircraft.
Laboratory analysis of the oil samples showed they were not from the Malaysia Airlines jet but were a type of fuel used by ships, the Maritime Enforcement Agency said in Kuala Lumpur.
The area became a focus for frantic international search efforts for the Boeing 777 after the large tongues of oil were found in the water on Saturday, hours after the plane dropped off the radar.
This comes as Malaysian authorities revealed to local media that they knew the identities of at least one of the two men traveling on stolen passports.
“I can confirm that he is not a Malaysian, but cannot divulge which country he is from yet,” Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar told the Star, a major Malaysian newspaper. He added that the man is also not from Xinjiang, China – a northwestern province of the mainland home to minority Uighurs.
There has been speculation that the men were connected to a stolen passport syndicate, which civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman declined to confirm this, saying they were of “non-Asian” appearance.
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?”
The two men had also booked flights from Beijing to Europe, with police in Thailand saying the flights were bought by an Iranian man.
No debris confirmed
In a day of conflicting information which deepened relatives’ anguish, initial reports of debris off southern Vietnam were ruled out, before an aircraft spotted another object which appeared to be a life raft.
Malaysia said it was sending ships to investigate the raft sighting, but a Vietnamese vessel that got there first found only flotsam in the busy shipping lane.
“When we reached the site we recovered only a mouldy cable reel cover,” Vietnamese army deputy chief of staff Vo Vo Tuan said.
“I think there was only one suspect floating object there,” he said, conceding the amount of rubbish floating in the sea made it hard to be “100 per cent sure” the ship had reached the location of the reported raft.
Malaysia has expanded its search area after three days of scouring the sea failed to bring forth any confirmed sightings of wreckage.
“The area of search has been expanded in the South China Sea,” Civil Aviation Department chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said on Monday.
He added that, besides searching in waters between Malaysia and Vietnam, authorities were also searching on land in Malaysia and off western Malaysia.
Anger mounted amid a scramble for answers, and China – which had 153 of its nationals on board – said Malaysia needed to “step up” its efforts after authorities admitted they were mystified by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370.
Beijing’s state media lashed out at Malaysia and MAS over their handling of the crisis that began when the jet vanished early Saturday an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.
“The Malaysian side cannot shirk its responsibilities,” the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, wrote in a scathing editorial.
“The initial response from Malaysia was not swift enough.”
Malaysia has launched a terror probe after at least two of the passengers on board the plane were found to have travelled on stolen passports. The country’s police chief said Monday one of them had been identified, but gave no further details.
Malaysia’s head of civil aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, had few answers to the burning questions surrounding the plane’s fate. Asked whether it was possible the plane had been hijacked or disintegrated mid-air, he said nothing could be ruled out.
“We are looking at every angle. We are looking at every aspect of what could have happened,” he said.
“This unprecedented missing aircraft mystery – it is mystifying and we are increasing our efforts to do what we have to do.”
Australia to do more to help
Canberra will do more to help search for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane if Kuala Lumpur needs additional assistance, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said after speaking with her Malaysian counterpart.
The Australian minister also flagged the need for tighter passport controls.
The plane’s disappearance has led to an international search and rescue operation with Australia sending two P-3C Orion RAAF aircraft.
“It does show that countries pull together when there is a crisis such as this,” Ms Bishop told reporters in London where she’s attending the annual Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN) meeting.
“I spoke to the Malaysian foreign minister Anifah (Aman) yesterday and offered him our support.
“I asked that if there was anything further that Australia could do they just have to let us know.”
Ms Bishop said it was a very distressing time for the families of passengers and crew on the flight.
“We can assume that it has gone down but we don’t know where or why.”