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8 Mar, 2014 23:29

Malaysia Airlines 'fearing the worst' for missing plane

Malaysia Airlines 'fearing the worst' for missing plane

Malaysia Airlines is “fearing the worst” as its plane carrying 239 people is still missing, more than 24 hours after it disappeared. A rescue team is continuing its search after two oil slicks suspected to have come from the aircraft were found at sea.

The plane search area for the rescue mission has been expanded as the missing aircraft might have turned back, Malaysia's Transport Minister Seri Hishammuddin said during press conference.

The minister said that no debris was found and added that four suspect passengers are being investigated in a terror link probe.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from radars early Saturday morning in Vietnamese airspace. A senior Vietnamese naval official stated that the plane crashed into the South China Sea, according to the country's state media.

Later on Saturday, Vietnamese Air Force planes spotted two oil slicks which are suspected to have come from the missing plane, AP reported. The air force said the slicks were discovered off the southern tip of Vietnam and resemble the kind of trail left by fuel from a jetliner.

As of now, there is still no information on the whereabouts of the plane. “The search and the rescue team has yet to determine the whereabouts of the MH370,” the airline's spokesman said at a press conference in Beijing. The rescue team “failed to find evidence of any wreckage.”

Washington has also deployed agents and technical experts to help with the ongoing investigation into the whereabouts of the plane.

“In fearing for the worst, a disaster recovery management specialist from Atlanta, USA will be assisting Malaysia Airlines in this crucial time,” Malaysia Airlines said in its latest statement. The airline will also establish a command center in Kota Bharu, Malaysia or Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam after the whereabouts of the plane are determined, according to the statement.

A crying woman is escorted to a bus for relatives at the Beijing Airport after news of the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane on March 8, 2014.(AFP Photo / Mark Ralston)

The multi-national rescue team is continuing its search, deploying boats and helicopters to verify reports from the Vietnamese Navy. “An international search and rescue mission from Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam was mobilized this morning. At this stage, they have failed to find evidence of any wreckage. The sea mission will continue overnight while the air mission will recommence at daylight,” Malaysia Airlines said in its latest statement.

The airline sent a team of 94 caregivers “consisting of well-trained staff and also Tzu Chi Foundation members to provide emotional support to the families.” Another set of caregivers will be deployed to Beijing later on Sunday.

Vietnamese state media earlier stated that the plane came down close to Tho Chu Island. However, those reports have not been confirmed by Malaysia Airlines.

Malaysia Airlines said flight MH370 lost touch with Subang Air Traffic Control around 02:40 local time on Saturday morning.

The aircraft left Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 00:41 and was expected to land in Beijing at 06:30 local time (22:30 GMT).

A relative (C, in white) of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, covers her face as she cries at the Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing March 8, 2014.(Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Despite local news reports, Vietnamese and Malaysian rescue crews have so far failed to locate the plane’s signal, but Hanoi believes the craft disappeared in Vietnamese airspace.

The flight was carrying 227 passengers, including two infants and 12 crew members, the airline said in an earlier statement.

Fourteen nationalities were represented among the 227 passengers, according to airline officials. Passengers include 153 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, seven Australians, five Indians, four Americans, and one Russian, among others.

Relatives of those aboard the plane will be flown to an undisclosed location Sunday morning, Malaysia's Bernama state news agency reported. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife are said to be meeting the relatives after dawn.

Texas semiconductor firm Freescale confirmed that 20 of its employees were aboard the plane, AFP reported. Freescale President and CEO Gregg Lowe stated that 12 of its employees were from Malaysia and another eight were from China. "At present, we are solely focused on our employees and their families," he said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragic event."

The last contact the plane had with air traffic controllers was 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu, the airline said on Saturday. The pilot of the flight was 53-year-old Malaysian national Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who has logged a total of 18,365 flying hours and has been working for Malaysia Airlines since 1981.

Stolen passports raise terror concern

Another mysterious aspect of the already devastating situation is that two passengers on the flight had stolen passports, raising terror concerns.

US officials are looking into those concerns, NBC News reported. However, officials stated that there is no clear connection to terrorism, citing other reasons that passengers may have had stolen passports – such as drug smuggling.

Malaysian authorities said at least two more identities aboard the plane are being investigated, Reuters cited a security official as saying.

The persons listed on the stolen passports have been found safe and sound in their home countries.

“Our embassy got the information that there was an Austrian on board. That was the passenger list from Malaysia Airlines. Our system came back with a note that this is a stolen passport,” an Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman revealed, as quoted by Reuters. The man, who was found at his home by police, reportedly had his passport stolen while traveling in Thailand in 2012.

An Italian ‘ghost’ passenger was also discovered, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome.

The passenger list provided by Malaysia Airlines included Luigi Maraldi, 37, an Italian citizen. Following the document’s release, Corriere Della Sera newspaper reported that Maraldi's passport was stolen in Thailand last August.

The names of individuals are being verified with embassies of their countries in Malaysia. The investigated individuals all purchased their tickets through China Southern Airlines.

Malaysian transport minister added that investigators are going over the entire passenger manifest.

A man takes pictures of a flight information board displaying the Scheduled Time of Arrival (STA) of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 (top, in red) at the Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, March 8, 2014.(Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon)