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Kuala Lumpur -
One of the two men travelling on a missing Malaysian Airlines jetliner was an Iranian asylum-seeker, officials said on Tuesday, as baffled authorities expanded their search for the Boeing 777 on the opposite side of the country from where it disappeared nearly four days ago with 239 people on board.
In the absence of any sign that the plane was in trouble before it vanished, speculation has ranged widely, including pilot error, plane malfunction, hijacking and terrorism, the last because two passengers were travelling on stolen passports. The terrorism theory weakened after Malaysian authorities determined that one of the two men was an Iranian asylum-seeker.
Malaysian police chief Tan Sri Khalid Tan Sri said he was a 19-year-old man believed to be planning to enter Germany to seek asylum. He said the man was not believed to be a member of a terrorist group.
The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, on the western coast of Malaysia, early on Saturday en route to Beijing. It flew overland across Malaysia and crossed the eastern coast into the Gulf of Thailand at 35 000 feet (about 10 000m). There it disappeared from radar screens. The airline says the pilots didn't send any distress signals, suggesting a sudden and possibly catastrophic incident.
In a statement, Malaysia Airlines said search and rescue teams “have expanded the scope beyond the flight path to the West Peninsula of Malaysia at the Straits of Malacca”. An earlier statement had said the western coast of Malaysia was “now the focus”, but the airline subsequently said that phrase was an oversight.
“The search is on both sides,” civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said, adding that the previous statement didn't mean that the plane was more like to be off the western coast.
The new statement said authorities are looking at a possibility that Flight MH370 attempted to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur. If it did indeed retrace its path, the plane could conceivably have crashed into the sea on the western coast, the other side of Malaysia from where it was reported missing. But this doesn't explain why it did not continue to show on radar while flying back toward Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia Airlines or other authorities have not addressed that question.
“All angles are being looked at. We are not ruling out any possibilities,” is all that the Malaysia Airlines statement said.
Malaysia's air force chief also said on Sunday there were indications on military radar that the jet may have done a U-turn.
Over the last three days, the search mission has grown to include nine aircraft and 24 ships from nine countries, which have been scouring the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of Malaysia. Apart from the sea, land areas are also being searched.
China, where two-thirds of the passengers were from, has urged Malaysian authorities to “speed up the efforts” while also contributing ships and helicopters to the search.
A shopping mall in Beijing suspended advertising on its large outdoor LED screen to display a search timer - an image of an airplane along with a digital clock marking the time since contact with the flight was lost. - Sapa-AP