Two men travelling with stolen passports on a missing Malaysia Airlines plane were Iranians who had bought tickets to Europe and were probably not terrorists, according to officials.
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. Baffled authorities have expanded their search to the opposite side of Malaysia from where it disappeared more than three days ago with 239 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 travelling with stolen passports immediately fuelled speculation of foul play. But Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference 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,” Mr 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 travelled 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”.
Mr 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 did not get in touch with her.