Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: 2 suspects not Asian, possible links to global passport syndicate

As the search for lost Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is widened from a 50 to 100 nautical mile radius in the South China Sea, Malaysian investigation on the stolen passports used to board the flight has found that the two suspects were not Asian and could be linked to a global passport syndicates.

In fact, Malaysia's chief aviation regulator said after repeated reviews of the videos and photographs, one of the suspects resembles Italian football star Mario Balotelli, who plays for AC Milan.

"Do you know a footballer by the name of Balotelli? He's an Italian but you know how he looks like?" Head of Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, asked reporters at a news briefing on Monday evening.

When asked if the suspects were black, Mr Azharuddin first answered "yes", but later refused to say if the suspect were of African nationality.

He explained that since investigations were now angling on the possibility of an international passport theft syndicate, revealing their nationalities could impact ongoing investigations.

"I confirm that all security protocols were complied with. There is some indication of them (belonging to).. a passport syndicate. This is an angle to be looked at," he said.

The revelation has allayed some confusion over the nationalities of the two suspects who used passports which had been reported stolen from an Austrian and Italian holidaying in Phuket about two years ago.

Earlier, Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar revealed that they had identified one of the two suspects but had declined to reveal the nationality.

It was earlier believed that the stolen passports were used by Asian-looking men. Malaysia's Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had also questioned on Monday why aircraft staff did not flag the use of passports by Asian men with European sounding names on the passports.

The Interpol suspected that more stolen passports were used on MH370 than initially reported.

Meanwhile, search operations for the lost Malaysia Airlines flight in the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea will be widened on Tuesday from 50 to a 100-nautical mile radius from its last known position, some 120 km off Kelantan's coast.

Given the possibility that MH370 may have turned back towards Kuala Lumpur International Airport, land searches in north Peninsula Malaysia and north Sumatra have also been launched, along with intensified searches in the Strait of Malacca.

Mr Azharuddin said ships have been dispatched to investigate debris detected south of Hong Kong and east of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, with the report of this search due on Tuesday morning.

"Weather for the last few days and night have been fair for search operations. We believe the current weather will maintain," said Air Force chief Maj Gen Datuk Affendi Buang.

MH370 lost contact with Malaysian air controllers on Saturday morning at about 2.40am. It was due to land in Beijing at 6.30am local time. There were no distress signal nor was there bad weather when it disappeared.

The flight was carrying a total number of 239 people - comprising 227 passengers (including 2 infants) and 12 crew members.

Passengers from 14 nations and Taiwan were on board, the majority being Chinese nationals and Malaysians. No Singaporean was on board.

Flight MH370 was operated on a Boeing 777-200 aircraft, a codeshare with China Southern Airlines.