Authorities continue to scour the waters of Gulf of Thailand for any sign of debris

A third day of a massive search operation involving 34 aircraft and 40 ships from eight countries failed to discover any trace of the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200, which disappeared over the South China Sea early Saturday carrying 239 people.

Malaysian officials described the aircraft's disappearance as an “unprecedented aviation mystery” as authorities continued to scour the waters of the Gulf of Thailand for any sign of debris.

On Monday evening, as light dimmed over the South China Sea, ships from the US, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and at least three other countries had not reported any breakthrough in the search. The Malaysian government said the debris found by the Vietnamese Navy on Sunday, initially described as parts of an aircraft door and tail, were not from the Beijing-bound flight MH370, which was cruising at 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand when it lost contact, around an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.

The difficulty in finding traces of the missing jet has led aviation experts to suggest the likelihood of a ‘disintegration’ at 35,000 feet, triggered by mechanical problems or other reasons.

Malaysian Civil Aviation Authority chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said a hijacking or terrorism could not be ruled out and investigators were exploring all leads, though they were yet to find confirmed evidence.

Among the 239 on board were two passengers travelling on stolen European passports. Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi initially said they were of Asian appearance, but the head of Malaysia's Civil Aviation Department later added that following a review of security footage and photographs, authorities "confirmed now that they are not Asian-looking men". Hamidi said they were neither Malaysian citizens nor from China's Xinjiang region, responding to speculation of a terror plot, in the wake of the recent attack on a railway station in southwestern China that left 29 dead.

A diplomatic source in Beijing said while the terror angle was a possibility and could not be ruled out, at the same time it was to be remembered that there were a number of cases of foreigners selling their passports in Thailand and then reporting them as stolen, helping facilitate illegal travel for asylum seekers, smuggling rackets and others to the West.

The two passengers had been booked on onward flights from Beijing to Amsterdam. They did not require Chinese visas, as European passport holders are eligible for 72-hour transit stay under a new rule.

On board the flight were five Indians, 154 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians and passengers from the US, France and at least five other countries. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Monday it had asked Malaysia to “step up efforts” and provide information to China “in a timely fashion”, as relatives, gathered in a northeastern Beijing hotel, waited in despair for news of their loved ones.

(This article was published on March 10, 2014)
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