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Missing Malaysia Flight: Mystery passengers identified, terrorism ‘not likely’

CNN - A passenger flight carrying 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is missing, Malaysia Airlines said Saturday, March 8, 2014.

CNN - A passenger flight carrying 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is missing, Malaysia Airlines said Saturday, March 8, 2014.

Amid the many questions about the fate of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, one small part of the story became clearer Tuesday when authorities said they had identified the two passengers who used stolen passports to board the plane.

And it’s unlikely, officials said, that they were part of a terrorist group.

The two passengers in question were young men who entered Malaysia using valid Iranian passports, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said at a news conference.

But they used stolen Austrian and Italian passports to board the missing Malaysian plane, he said.

Noble said they are 18-year-old Pouria Nour Mohammadi and 29-year-old Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza.

Malaysian police had earlier identified Mohammadi, using a slightly different name and age, and said they believed he was trying to migrate to Germany.

The use of the stolen passports by two passengers on the plane, which vanished from the skies Saturday, raised fears that its disappearance could be linked to terrorism.

But Interpol and Malaysian police played down the likelihood of a terrorist connection.

CNN - A passenger flight carrying 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is missing, Malaysia Airlines said Saturday, March 8, 2014.

CNN – A passenger flight carrying 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is missing, Malaysia Airlines said Saturday, March 8, 2014.

Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar of the Royal Malaysian Police said it doesn’t appear the younger Iranian posed a threat.

“We have been checking his background,” Khalid said. “We have also checked him with other police organizations of his profile and we believe that he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group.”

After he failed to arrive in Frankfurt, the final destination of his ticket, his mother contacted authorities, Khalid said.

According to ticketing records, the ticket to Frankfurt was booked under the stolen Austrian passport.

The bigger piece of the puzzle

The identification of one of the men helps peel away a thin layer of the mystery surrounding the passenger jet, which disappeared about an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

But in the bigger puzzle of the missing plane’s whereabouts, there were no reports of progress Tuesday.

Every lead that has raised hopes of tracing the commercial jet and the 239 people on board has so far petered out.

“Time is passing by,” a middle-aged man shouted at an airline agent in Beijing on Tuesday.

His son, he said, was one of the passengers aboard the plane.

Most of those on the flight were Chinese and for their family members, the wait has been agonizing.

There were also three U.S. citizens on the plane, including Philip Wood.

“As of yet, we know as much as everyone else,” Wood’s brother, Tom, told CNN’s “AC360″ Monday. “It seems to be getting more bizarre, the twists in the story, where they can’t find anything. So we’re just relying on faith.”

The challenge facing those involved in the huge, multinational search is daunting; the area of sea they are combing is vast.

And they still don’t know if they’re looking in the right place.

“As we enter into Day 4, the aircraft is yet to be found,” Malaysia Airlines said in a statement released Tuesday.

Days, weeks or even months

Over the past few days, search teams have been scouring tens of thousands of square miles of sea around the area where the plane was last detected, between the northeast coast of Malaysia and southwest Vietnam.

They have also been searching off the west coast of the Malaysian Peninsula, in the Strait of Malacca, and north into the Andaman Sea.

The airline said Tuesday that authorities are still investigating the possibility that the plane tried to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur.

The search also encompasses the land in between the two areas of sea.

But it could be days, weeks or even months before the searchers find anything that begins to explain what happened to the plane, which disappeared early Saturday en route to Beijing.

In the case of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic in 2009, it took five days just to find the first floating wreckage.

And it was nearly two years before investigators found the bulk of the French plane’s wreckage and the majority of the bodies of the 228 people on board, about 12,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.

The Gulf of Thailand, the area where the missing Malaysian plane was last detected, is much shallower, with a maximum depth of only 260 feet and an average depth of about 150 feet.

“If the aircraft is in the water, it should make recovery easier than the long and expensive effort to bring up key parts of the Air France plane,” Bill Palmer, an Airbus A330 captain for a major airline, wrote in an opinion article for CNN.

But if Flight 370 went down farther west, it could have ended up in the much deeper waters of the Andaman Sea.

No possibilities ruled out

Aviation officials say they haven’t ruled out any possibilities in the investigation so far. It’s hard for them to reach any conclusions until they find the plane, along with its voice and data recorders.

Malaysian police, who are tasked with looking at whether any criminal cause was at play, are focusing on four particular areas, Khalid said Tuesday: hijacking, sabotage, psychological problems of the passengers and crew, and personal problems among the passengers and crew.

He said police were going through the profiles of all the passengers and crew members.

Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told CNN’s Jim Clancy that those involved in the search for the plane are determined to carry on.

“We just have to be more resolved and pay more attention to every single detail,” he said Tuesday. “It must be there somewhere. We have to find it.”

‘Crucial time’ passing

But if the plane fell into the sea, the more time that goes by, the harder the task becomes as ocean currents move things around.

“Crucial time is passing,” David Gallo, with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday. “That search area, that haystack, is getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Gallo described what will happen once some debris from the aircraft is found, though he stressed there’s still no evidence the plane hit the water.

“Once a piece of the debris is found, if it did impact on the water, then you’ve got to backtrack that debris to try to find the ‘X marks the spot’ on where the plane actually hit the water, because that would be the center of the haystack.

“And in that haystack you’re trying to find bits of that needle, in fact, in the case of the flight data recorders, you’re looking for a tiny little bit of that needle,” he said.

Technology put to use

Countries involved in the search have deployed sophisticated technology to help try to track down the plane.

China has adjusted the commands for as many as 10 satellites in orbit so that they can assist with weather monitoring, communications and other aspects of the search, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.

And the United States has put a range of naval technology to use in the search.

That includes a Navy P-3C Orion aircraft, which can cover about 1,000 to 1,500 square miles every hour, according to the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

The Orion, which is focused on the area off the west coast of Malaysia, has sensors that allow the crew to clearly detect small debris in the water, the fleet said.

CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest described the search as “extremely painstaking work,” suggesting a grid would have been drawn over the ocean for teams to comb bit by bit.

Quest said that the expanding search area shows how little idea rescue officials have of where the plane might be.

But he’s still confident they’ll find it eventually.

“It’s not hopeless by any means; they will find it,” he said. “They have to. They have to know what happened.”