By Tania Branigan, Kate Hodal and Philip Oltermann
Distressed relatives of people on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 wait in Beijing. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Mystery over Bejing-bound MH370 compounded as diplomats confirm two passengers travelling on stolen passports.
Hundreds are feared dead after a MalaysiaAirlines flight vanished in the early hours of Saturday, with Vietnamese officials reporting oil slicks in the sea that could be connected to the missing plane. The mystery of Beijing-bound MH370’s disappearance was compounded as diplomats confirmed that two passengers were travelling on stolen passports.
Five young children were among the 239 people on board the Boeing-777 when it vanished from radar screens, about 40 minutes after taking off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.41am local time.
Search-and-rescue teams from Vietnam and Malaysia have been searching waters in the South ChinaSea for any sign of the flight. Singaporean teams and ships and aircraft from China, the Philippines and the US are also at the scene or on their way to help.
Vietnam said its rescue planes had spotted two large oil slicks – each about 15km long – and a column of smoke off its coastline. Pham Quy Tieu, vice-minister of transportation, told Reuters that boats had been dispatched to try to determine whether they were connected to the missing plane.
There were no reports of bad weather prior to the crash and no distress calls or other indications of problems. Malaysia Airlines said the aircraft had been flying at 35,000ft. Experts said it was highly unusual to lose all trace of a flight so abruptly – although an Air France passenger aircraft vanished suddenly over the South Atlantic in 2009. Wreckage of that flight, which killed all 228 on board when it crashed, was not found until two days later.
Asked whether terrorism was suspected, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak told reporters: “We are looking at all possibilities, but it is too early to make any conclusive remarks.” CNN quoted a US intelligence official saying authorities were checking on stolen passports but there was “no nexus to terrorism yet”. The official added: “That’s by no means definitive. We’re still tracking.”
China’s premier Li Keqiang urged Malaysia to work with other countries to find the aircraft as soon as possible. “Time is life, and human life is above all else,” he said.
The flight was a share with Malaysia Airlines and China Southern and more than 150 of the passengers were Chinese nationals. Many were Malaysian and others came from countries including Indonesia, Australia, India, France and the US. Austria and Italy, each of which had one national listed on the manifest, said the men never boarded the flight.
A spokesman for the Austrian foreign office said staff had spoken to the national included on the list. He said his passport had been stolen two years ago on a flight between two Asian countries. The spokesman did not identify the man, but the manifest names him as Christian Kozel, 30.
Italian diplomats said that Luigi Maraldi, 37, was also safe and well, in Thailand. He had reported his passport stolen there last year. It is unclear how passengers could have boarded with passports reported as stolen.
As the wait for news of the plane continued into the night, Chinese relatives of passengers accused the airline of keeping them in the dark.
“There’s no one from the company here. They’ve shut us in this room and told us to wait,” one man told Reuters at a hotel near Beijing airport where the relatives were taken. “They haven’t even given us the passenger list.”
Another relative, trying to evade a throng of reporters, muttered: “They’re treating us worse than dogs.”
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines told passengers’ next of kin to come to the international airport with their passports to fly to the crash site once it was confirmed. About 20 to 30 families were being kept in a holding room at the airport, guarded by security officials and kept away from reporters.
Malaysia Airlines has a good reputation for safety in the region and experts praised the performance of the Boeing 777 model, which had never been involved in a fatal accident before last year’s crash at San Francisco airport, in which three died.
The airline identified the flight’s captain as Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old Malaysian who joined the carrier in 1981 and has 18,365 hours of flight experience.
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