PATTAYA - A small travel agency in south Pattaya by the name of Grand Horizon has come under intense scrutiny after it issued tickets to two men travelling with stolen passports on the ill-fated MH370.
Pattaya police are following the document trail leading to a man known only as "Ali" who apparently used to live in this seaside city but now resides in Iran.
He had made the initial flight reservations for the duo, whom Interpol officials said in Lyon, France, on Tuesday were Iranians and "probably not terrorists".
Local police too believe that the evidence so far points to an illegal immigration route, according to Pattaya police chief Supachai Puikaekham.
"Personally, I don't think it has anything to do with terrorism," Colonel Supachai said.
The case has thrown the spotlight on the fake and stolen passports racket in Thailand. But the travel agencies deny any knowledge.
"It's not our fault," said one of the two female employees at Grand Horizon. "We never saw the passengers."
The agency, located in a Middle Eastern enclave in this city known for its raucous and sleazy night life, is flanked by dozens of other travel agents and tour operators, hotels, massage parlours and shisha bars.
The woman said the tickets were booked by "Mr Ali", adding: "I have never seen him."
She refused to give her name, scurrying to lock the door to prevent other people from entering the office.
Grand Horizon does not issue tickets because it is not accredited to the International Air Transport Association (Iata), she said, so it obtained the tickets from Six Stars, a travel agency with 10 branches around the country.
Six Stars' Pattaya branch is in the upscale Central Festival mall. A woman at the counter who identified herself only as Ms Nuk said Six Stars had merely issued the tickets at the request of Grand Horizon. She had handed photocopies of the passports to the police.
The tickets were reserved on China Southern Airlines, which has a code-sharing arrangement with Malaysia Airlines for the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing route.
Pattaya, just over an hour's drive from Suvarnabhumi International Airport, receives well over eight million tourists a year, and has a large number of foreign residents. The small Immigration Office in the city is packed with foreigners on any working day.
One foreign resident, identified as "Mr Aseem", paid for the tickets after Mr Ali had reserved them, police said.
At a Transnational Crime Data Centre located above the Immigration Office, some officers had stayed up the previous night working on leads on the stolen passports, an officer said.
Police sources echoed Pattaya police chief Supachai's view, saying they too were inclined to believe that the two Iranians had nothing to do with terrorism.
Speaking to The Straits Times, Mr Giovanni Broussard, a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime official based in Bangkok and involved in training regional officials to spot passport fraud, said: "Based on information in the media, the two had re-booked flights to find cheaper tickets."
That was not typical of terrorists, he said. Rather, it was just "a pattern of someone trying to get a cheaper flight to a destination".
"At most it could be connected to drugs, although there is also no evidence to indicate that," Mr Broussard added.