The identities of four passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight are under investigation, the country’s transport minister said on Sunday, as the company confirmed that it was “fearing the worst”.
Investigators are examining the entire passenger manifest after European diplomats said late on Saturday that two of the 227 passengers were travelling on stolen passports. Hishamuddin Hussein, who is also defence minister, said Malaysia would work with the FBI and other international agencies and that two more names were being checked.
“All the four names are with me,” he said, according to Reuters.
He spoke as the multinational hunt for any sign of the Malaysia Airlines flight missing with 239 people on board widened on Sunday, with officials saying search and rescue teams had so far found no trace of it.
Hishammuddin also said there was a chance the aircraft had turned back in mid-air.
“We are looking at the possibility of an aircraft air turn back, in which case different locations will have to be identified,” he said.
Citizens from 14 nations were on board, though the vast majority were Chinese. The 12-strong flight crew were all from Malaysia.
On Saturday night, diplomats confirmed that two Europeans listed on the passenger manifest – an Italian, Luigi Maraldi and an Austrian, Christian Kozel – had not been on the flight and were safe and well. Maraldi had his passport stolen in Thailand last year and Kozel’s was stolen in the region two years ago.
The flight was a codeshare with China Southern and the two people named as Maraldi and Kozel on the list booked together via the Chinese airline, Chinese media reported.
The company said it had CCTV footage of the two people who checked in as Maraldi and Kozel.
The Boeing 777 disappeared from radar screens just 40 minutes into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was last detected over the seas between Malaysia and Vietnam.
On Sunday morning the Malaysian director-general of civil aviation, Azaruddin Abdul Rahman, told reporters the search had expanded to a larger area of the South China Sea area and west coast of Malaysia, the Straits Times reported.
Warships from Singapore and China were heading to the area and the United States also offered vessels and aircraft.
In a statement issued on Sunday morning, Malaysia Airlines said: “More than 24 hours after the loss of contact with Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the search and rescue teams are still unable to detect the whereabouts of the missing aircraft.
“In fearing for the worst, a disaster recovery management specialist from Atlanta, USA will be assisting Malaysia Airlines in this crucial time.”
An earlier statement began with the words: “Malaysia Airlines humbly asks all Malaysians and people around the world to pray for flight MH370.”
Vietnam’s deputy transport minister, Pham Quy Tieu, said no wreckage had been seen in the vicinity of two oil slicks detected late on Saturday, but that the search continued.
The pilot of another flight told a Malaysian newspaper he had made brief contact with the plane via his emergency frequency, at the request of Vietnamese aviation authorities who had been unable to reach it as expected. Vietnam has said it believes the flight never entered its airspace.
The unnamed man said his Japan-bound plane was deep into Vietnamese airspace when officials asked him to relay to MH370 to establish its position, and that he succeeded at about 1.30am local time.
“The voice on the other side could have been either Captain Zaharie [Ahmad Shah, 53,] or Fariq [Abdul Hamid, 27], but I was sure it was the co-pilot.
“There were a lot of interference … static … but I heard mumbling from the other end.
“That was the last time we heard from them, as we lost the connection,” he told the New Straits Times.
He said he did not think any more of it at the time, as losing connections was common.
Malaysia Airlines executives have said the flight was at 35,000 feet when it vanished and had given no indication of problems when last in contact.
William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical university in Arizona, told Associated Press the lack of a distress call ‘‘suggests something very sudden and very violent happened”.
Both Malaysia Airlines and Boeing-777s have strong safety records.
CNN reported that an FBI team was flying to Malaysia to assist in the investigation because three Americans were on board. It cited an unnamed official.