The two men who used stolen passports to board the missing Malaysian jetliner didn't intentionally pick that flight, a newspaper reports, undercutting the possibility that they targeted the Beijing-bound plane in an act of terrorism.
The Thai travel agent who booked the men onto Malaysia Airlines MH370 says that they used a middleman who only asked for the cheapest flight to Europe.
She initially reserved seats for them on two separate flights operated by Gulf State airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad, the national airline of the the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities are saying that the two men looked African.
Investigators have checked closed-circuit television footage of the men as they boarded the flight.
“It is confirmed now that they are not Asian-looking men,” Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, told a press conference Monday evening in Kuala Lumpur.
When reporters asked for a description, Mr. Azharuddin referred to Mario Balotelli, an Italian soccer star whose birth parents are from Ghana.
He wouldn’t elaborate. “I don’t want to dwell about it but they are not Asian-looking.”
Mr. Azharuddin added that it is possible that a “stolen-passport syndicate” was involved.
Defence Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein told reporters that Malaysia has shared the images and biometrics of the two men with U.S. intelligence agencies.
The two men purchased their tickets in the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, using an Iranian intermediary, reported the Financial Times.
Benjaporn Krutnait, the owner of the Grand Horizon travel agency, told the paper that she had known the Iranian for three years and that he regularly booked flights for himself or others.
The Iranian, whom she only knowns as “Mr. Ali,” asked her to get cheap tickets to Europe for two men on March 1.
The tickets expired before Mr. Ali got back to her so she rebooked the two men on the Malaysia Airlines flight, making the reservation through China Southern Airlines, which code-shares the flight.
She said a friend of Mr. Ali paid for the tickets in cash, adding that such arrangements were common in Pattaya, with the middlemen keeping a commission.
The two men used passports that were reported stolen in Thailand in the last two years.
One to a 30-year-old Austrian, Christian Kozel. The other travel document was stolen from Luigi Maraldi, a 37-year-old Italian.
Both men were supposed to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. They were then supposed to board a KLM flight to Amsterdam, where the bogus Mr. Maraldi would have gone to Copenhagen while the fake Mr. Kozel would have flown to Frankfurt.
The latest developments seem to suggest that the two men were part of a refugee scam, said security consultant Chris Mathers, who has investigated many cases that involved stolen passports while he was an RCMP officer.
"It doesn't matter that the passport is going to be detected upon arrival. All you need is something that will get you on the plane," Mr. Mathers said.
"When they would get to Beijing, the passports would likely not have been checked because they would be in the in-transit area. Then, when they get on the plane to Europe, they flush the passports and declare refugee status in Europe. This happens a lot."
Interpol has warned that the case has exposed a lingering weakness in post-9/11 airline security.
The Maraldi and Kozel passports were registered in Interpol's database of 40 million travel documents that have been reported lost or stolen.
However, no country ever checked for those passports so no one is able to say how many times those two documents were used to board flights or cross borders, Interpol warned.
Last year, passengers boarded planes more than a billion times without having their passports checked against Interpol’s database, the agency said.
United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates were the rare countries that regularly checked the database, Interpol said.