China’s defence ministry will redeploy 10 satellites to join the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared on Saturday with 239 people on board after three days of fruitless searching.
As the Malaysian authorities announced they were doubling the size of the search area, Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department said it had received a report from the crew of a Cathay Pacific plane flying from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur at about 3pm that debris was spotted near Vung Tau, off southeast Vietnam.
The department said it had notified its counterparts in Vietnam, Malaysia and Hainan.
But the location of the debris does not match the path expected to have been taken by Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which should have flown over Ho Chi Minh City. The location supplied to the Civil Aviation Department was more than 125 kilometres southeast of the original flight path.
The satellite control centre in Xian will relieve the satellites of other tasks to step up weather monitoring, communication and search operations in the area where the plane disappeared, the ministry said.
Beijing said it would expand the search and called for Malaysia to strengthen its efforts. This followed several false leads from the sighting of debris and oil slicks thought to have come from the plane, which vanished en route to Beijing.
Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s Civil Aviation Authority, said the size of the search area would be doubled to 100 nautical miles around the spot where the jet disappeared.
Three Chinese civilian ships and the frigate Mianyang arrived yesterday and three more ships are on the way to the area where the plane lost contact.
Meanwhile, Thai police and Interpol questioned the proprietors of a travel agency in the resort town of Pattaya that sold one-way tickets to two men who travelled on flight MH370 using stolen passports. Malaysia’s police chief was quoted by local media as saying that one of the men had been identified.
Rahman said they were of “non-Asian” appearance. Asked by a reporter what they looked like “roughly”, he said: “Do you know of a footballer by the name of [Mario] Balotelli? He is an Italian. Do you know how he looks like?” A reporter then asked, “Is he black?” and the aviation chief replied, “Yes.”
The Thai travel agent who arranged the tickets for the two passengers using the stolen passports said she had booked them on the flight via Beijing because they were the cheapest tickets, the Financial Times reported.
The agent said an Iranian business contact she knew only as “Mr Ali” had asked her to book tickets for the men on March 1.
She had initially booked them on other airlines but those reservations expired and on March 6, Ali had asked her to book them again. She told the newspaper she did not think Ali, who booked tickets with her regularly, was linked to terrorism.
In Beijing, hundreds of distraught relatives waited anxiously for news. About 200 relatives of passengers criticised the lack of help from the Chinese and Malaysian governments.
Malaysia Airlines said it was giving 31,000 yuan (HK$39,000) to relatives of each passenger, “not as compensation, but a special condolence payment”.
In Vietnam, Deputy Transport Minister Pham Quy Tieu said debris spotted by the Singaporean authorities earlier were not from the missing plane. Rescue helicopters and ships had rushed to investigate a yellow object, but it turned out to be moss-covered floating rubbish.
Li Jiaxiang , China’s minister of Civil Aviation Administration, would not comment whether they suspected an earlier terror warning to Beijing was related to the missing plane.
Taiwan’s spy chief confirmed yesterday that the island had received a warning of possible terrorist attacks on the mainland as the annual parliamentary session is held in Beijing.
National Security Bureau head Tsai De-sheng told a legislative committee that the bureau passed on a warning of planned attacks against Beijing airport and the subway system to mainland authorities on March 4. He did not think the intelligence was relevant to the missing plane.