Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Iranian people-smuggling link as search widens

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Two suspect men who flew on a missing Malaysian airliner appear to have been Iranian illegal immigrants, officials said on Tuesday, lessening fears of terrorism but shedding no light on the fate of the plane's 239 passengers and crew.

On the fourth day of a multinational search at sea and on land, relatives desperate for news of loved ones aboard Malaysia Airlines MH370 said their hopes for a miracle were ebbing away.

Authorities have doubled the search radius to 100 nautical miles (equivalent to 185 kilometres) around the point where the Boeing 777 disappeared from radar over the South China Sea early Saturday, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"We are intensifying our search and rescue, and hoping against hope there is still an opportunity for us to rescue (those on board)," Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.

The 34-year-old son of Malaysian security guard Subramaniam Gurusamy was on the flight to do business in Beijing for an oil company.

"My three-year-old grandson is asking: 'Where is Dad?' We tell him father has gone to buy sweets for you," Gurusamy, 60, said as he broke down in tears.

"Please bring back my son. I am praying for divine intervention. That is the only hope we have." Malaysia had opened a terror probe, joined by FBI agents from the United States. But the revelation of the identities of two men who boarded the flight using stolen European passports suggested they were young Iranian migrants seeking a new life overseas.

Interpol named the pair as Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 18, who was booked to fly on to Germany, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, who was ticketed through to Denmark.

Delavar's ultimate destination was Sweden, where he intended to apply for political asylum, according to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.

The two travelled to Kuala Lumpur from Doha on their real Iranian passports, and their identification was helped by relatives in Europe who reported them missing, officials said.

"It is part of a human-smuggling issue and not a part of a terrorist issue," Interpol chief Ronald Noble told reporters in France, adding that the international agency was more and more "certain that these individuals are probably not terrorists." However, the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency Tuesday said that terrorism could not be ruled out.

"Clearly this is still a mystery," said CIA Director John Brennan, stressing it was too early to draw any conclusions.

Iran has offered its assistance to the Malaysian investigation, pledging to provide "any information on the Iranians and their status as soon as it is available".

People-smuggling ring?

Police in Southeast Asia agreed that people-smuggling was emerging as the likeliest explanation for the identity fraud.

The two passports - one Italian and one Austrian - were stolen over the past two years in Thailand, where police have long been battling a thriving trade in Western documents used by criminal gangs.

"We believe that these two passports were stolen by a human-smuggling gang who send people to work in third countries, especially European countries," Lieutenant General Panya Maman, commander of Thailand's southern police region, told AFP.

Malaysia's national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said his officers were not ruling anything out but were now focusing on theories including a hijacking, sabotage or psychological problems among passengers or crew.

Flight MH370, captained by a veteran pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be good.

The vastness of the search zone reflects authorities' bafflement over the plane's disappearance. The operation has grown to involve 42 ships and 35 aircraft from Southeast Asian countries, Australia, China, New Zealand and the United States.

The plane's last confirmed radar sighting was off Vietnam's southern coast.

"In terms of our assessments and predictions - we have little hope of a positive outcome," Pham Quy Tieu, Vietnamese deputy minister of transport, said.

Emotional breakdown

The search sphere now includes land on the Malaysian peninsula itself, the waters off its west coast, and an area to the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

That covers an area far removed from the scheduled route of flight MH370, which officials say may have inexplicably turned back towards Kuala Lumpur.

China, which had 153 of its nationals on board the plane, said it would harness 10 satellites equipped with high-resolution imaging to help in the search. Boeing said it was joining a US government team to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to its 777-200 plane.

Conflicting information has deepened the anguish of relatives, with tests on oil slicks in the South China Sea showing they were not from the missing jet and reports of possible debris from the flight also proving to be false alarms.

At a hotel in Beijing where relatives are gathered, a man in his 20s surnamed Su said: "I hope it is a hijacking, then there will be some hope that my young cousin has survived.

"My uncle and aunt had an emotional breakdown, they are not eating, drinking and sleeping." A total of 17 Chinese relatives have so far taken up an offer from Malaysia Airlines to fly to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the operation, and more are expected in the coming days, the airline said.